Classrooms in crisis

by Jul 11, 2012Magazine

classrooms-in-crisisQuestions to Salim Vally on June 16th and the Educational System
Amandla! (A!): At the heart of the June 16 uprising that changed the political situation in SA was the crisis of education. What has changed in 18 years?
Salim Vally (SV): What has changed is that we now have a mélange of official policies on almost every conceivable aspect of education but without a quality public education system. There have been tremendous changes at the level of policy, but whether these policies have resulted in meaningful changes for the majority is the question. The education system continues to be based on class. Far from becoming the great `leveler’, it continues to reproduce social inequalities. Another change has been that a small layer of black people from the middle class have been added to those who have been the beneficiaries of the racial capitalist system. 
Two caveats are necessary. Firstly, it is wrong and irresponsible to trivialise the legacy of the apartheid education system, although policies and practices over the past 18 years have in some cases exacerbated this legacy.
One can point to a few examples; the system of user fees now being reformed after great struggle, teacher rationalisation policies, outcomes-based education (OBE), etc. We also have the situation where failure by the state to implement learner-centered education has resulted in many incorrectly blaming a human rights culture for undermining discipline and respect for authority. This includes the nostalgic call for a return to the apartheid-era `fundamental pedagogics’ of didactic and choral recitation, `talk-andchalk’ rote learning, corporal punishment and blaming teachers and learners for educational shortcomings. While discipline is essential, learner-centered practices could enhance respect and self-discipline in the classroom. Until we come to grips with these issues, quality education for all will remain elusive and education will remain in crisis.
There has been a clear failure of government to address inequalities and shortcomings in the majority of schools. This includes addressing huge class sizes and overcrowding in schools-over 6000 of our schools have more than 45 learners per classroom; establishing functioning libraries with appropriate books and trained teachers-over 90% of our public schools or 20 000 schools have no libraries; supporting early childhood development; distributing text books and learner-support materials on time; providing support and teacher training for bilingual and special needs learners and devising strategies addressing poverty.
Secondly, education should not be delinked from its continued stratification along class, racial and regional lines. The `poverty gap’ across the schooling system matters. Scant attention has been paid to the effect of poverty and inequality on the implementation and outcome of education reforms here. UNICEF figures released last month (May 22nd) highlight poverty among children in South Africa: 19 million children live in poverty, 4 in 10 live in homes where no one is employed and in cases of dire poverty the figure rises to 7 in 10. About 1.7 million live in shacks, with no proper bedding, cooking or washing facilities; 1.4 million children rely on often dirty streams for drinking water and 1.5 million have no flushing lavatories.
Our many volumes of educational analyses leave a major gap in understanding policy in practice: poverty undermines education, and in South Africa the majority of children live in poverty. Poverty, if not ameliorated sufficiently, will reduce the effectiveness of education reform, however enlightened it may be.
This is not to deny that there are good and bad approaches to teaching or that schools can make a difference, but education is not the panacea. While curriculum change, innovations in schools and better resourced schools are vital; the precondition for ultimate success in these endeavors is changing the socio-economic status of learners. Our schools are still not disabled-friendly and remain places where orphans and learners and teachers who have HIV/AIDS are not treated with humanity.
Schools must become sustainable community institutions that can be mobilised as caring hosts for vulnerable children. This is only possible if overburdened teachers are given support by health, psychological and social service professionals. This is not happening in most schools. In addition, many of our learners do not do well because of learning barriers that cannot be blamed on OBE or on teachers. Schools do not systematically test learners for visual and hearing disabilities, speech problems, and do not intervene effectively in cases of emotional difficulties, child abuse, sexual abuse and alcohol/drug problems. Yet they continue to test learners as if they were all equal.
A!: So what is it exactly that we are doing wrong? Why have we failed to transform the education system. Then is it money, capacity or ideology?
SV: All of those issues are relevant and important ­ it’s not one or the other, it’s all three and more. There has to be appreciation of the impact of class from the structural implications for the poor, the subject of educational policy. We have rich and evocative testimonies that speak to the conditions for children in poor, rural communities ­ children that are seriously impoverished by their circumstances. The material speaks to the lack of resources for a meaningful education system. These testimonies do not explain the relation of these conditions to class.
In other words, we see the perpetuation of a society based on racial capitalism. We inherited social pathologies and structures created by racial capitalism and continued with them. Increasingly, some of us who grapple with the education crisis believe that reforms have floundered because they have not always attended to the replication of class in education. Moreover, the focus of many of these reforms has been on individual disadvantage abstracted from its broader social context. As such social challenge and public protest in moving towards achieving equitable outcomes need once more to be re-visited.
A!: What do you make of the skills scarcity that is constantly hammered in by the media in South Africa?
SV: It is argued that the key function of education is to meet the needs of the market. The dominant discourse assumes that socioeconomic development is contingent on the `productive’ role of education and training. The corollary to this is that unemployment is related to the lack of requisite skills for the labour market and the inability of workers to keep up with technological change. This view transfers responsibility for unemployment to individual deficiencies instead of to a weakness of the economic structure and how employment is distributed.
Technical skills are important, but there are thousands of skilled graduates who are unemployed. In fact, the North African uprisings starting from Tunisia were sparked off by young people in that predicament.
Education is more than skills for the market, it is also about critical citizenship. The economist Ha-Joon Chang in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism puts it well, “There are many subjects that have no impact, even indirectly, on most workers’ productivity ­ literature, history, philosophy and music, for example. From a strictly economic point of view, teaching these subjects is a waste of time. We teach our children those subjects because we believe that they will eventually enrich their lives and also make them good citizens.”
A!: What is the meaning of June 16 for SA’s youth today, many of whom seem to be alienated from the ritualizing of June 16th in the form of a state driven celebratory event?
SV: for Those of us in The South African Students Movement, who gathered at the Wilgespruit Fellowship complex in 1976 prior to the June events and who were detained and tortured and who witnessed hundreds of our peers killed and thousands exiled, some of the `celebrations’ are disconcerting. Similarly, the squabbles about who `owns’ the Uprising are amusing but tragic. At the same time those in power today who castigate young people’s disinterest in this watershed moment need to think again. Can we blame the millions of youth who are unemployed and financially excluded from education institutions who find exhortations by church leaders and state functionaries for `moral regeneration’ a touch hypocritical? Can we blame the youth in a context where images on billboards, television and print media daily bombard them with the elixir of consumer goods and where relations between human beings mean nothing if they are not commodified, where allegations of corruption daily embrace those lionised by the makers of history and where struggle icons, including those from the 1976 era, overnight become billionaires? Many young people have lost interest in politicians but not in political struggle.
South Africa has a history of resistance in and through education. This has generated epistemologies and pedagogies against racial capitalism. The `people’s education movement’, `worker education movement’ and `popular adult and/or community education movement’ are examples. This praxis has diminished but still exists. We need to re-build the education and social movements of the 80s and early 90s. Recently Equal Education and the Public Participation in Education Network have taken the state to court about educational matters. This must be supported, but even more important is the need for social mobilisation and the strengthening of nonsectarian and independent left political organisations with the intent and ability to unite struggles throughout the country.
Salim Vally was a leading member of SA Students Movement until its banning in 1977. He is presently the director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (CERT) based at the University of Johannesburg.
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