IN LONG Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela places enormous hope in education. “Education is the great engine of personal development,” he writes. “It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm- workers can become the president.”
Many people know this quote. When Mandela wrote these words he knew that he was living proof of their truth. What he said next is less well-known: “It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”
That is certainly sound advice from a father to a son or daughter, especially during the months before the matric exams. And all across the land the grade 12s of 2009 were exhorted, challenged, even pleaded with, in terms that resembled Mandela’s.
But both statements deserve close scrutiny because neither one bears much resemblance to the reality facing young people. More often than not, education is a great engine of social division, a system that ensures that the daughter of the peasant becomes a call- centre temp; that the son of the mineworker becomes a street sweeper; and that the child of farm workers becomes a domestic servant.
In SA today, education is perpetuating inequality, not ending it. For most young people, what they have — brains, dreams and determination — cannot make up for they were not given: textbooks, libraries, calculators and well-educated teachers.
In a recent ruling, the Indonesian Supreme Court took this logic to a dramatic and radical conclusion. National tests, it held, must be suspended, until all students can write them on an equal footing.
The court has effectively told the government that equitable education is a prerequisite for fair national exams. Whether this will spur the Indonesian government into action, or dangerously disrupt a fragile education system, remains to be seen, but the ruling certainly cuts to the heart of an unjust and unconstitutional reality.
Writing recently in the City Press, members of Blackwash, a black consciousness youth group, put it like it is: “After this year’s results are announced, many individual black learners in rural and township schools who did exceptionally well will be praised for their hard work and dedication. We will be told by the newspapers that all black learners who work hard can also do well. But this is a lie. The majority of white learners pass well whether they work hard or not and black learners fail either way.”
The 2008 matric results, disaggregated by race , seem to confirm this. Take KwaZulu-Natal: last year 99,5% of white students passed, with 73,9% attaining adequate grades for university entrance, whereas only 53% of black students passed, with 13% at university entrance level.
In 2003, all g rade 6 pupils in the Western Cape took standard numeracy tests. The pass-rate in the integrated former Model C schools was 62,4%. In the African township schools it was 0,1% or one in 1000. Six years on, this is the year-group nervously awaiting matric results.
It is tempting to see the present as a simple perpetuation of the past, but now it is wealth, not discrimination based on skin colour, that limits life chances. Those who can pay high school and university fees buy a real chance at making a success of life. The rest must be sublimely talented and lucky to escape unemployment or grindingly monotonous work. After all, Mandela himself was raised by the Thembu paramount chief, who could afford to educate him.
Matric is not a talent competition in which you get judged on self-taught brilliance. School is a marathon where everyone runs the same course and even the most gifted athlete, denied running shoes, a route map and hydration is easily passed by the club runner in soft Nikes sipping Power ade.
The members of Equal Education, who are both black and white, know this well. EE, as it is known, is a movement of young people, and their parents and teachers, that faces this reality and struggles to change it.
At the same time members are motivated to do their best, even under unfair conditions. During the past year E E ran a campaign against late-coming in Khayelitsha, which dramatically increased teaching time in some schools.
Nonetheless, EE members from Kraaifontein to Alexandra wait in trepidation for their final results.
Many of the educational problems of the past decade have rightly been tied to outcomes-based education (OBE), but as we move past OBE, an even bigger leviathan — incomes-based education — is coming into view.
Conservatives argue that resources have little to do with outcomes. But ample evidence from national and multi-country studies over the past decade demonstrates that a range of resources — particularly textbooks and library books — are indispensable. Researchers such as Servaas van den Berg and Nick Taylor have reached similar conclusions, noting also that the capacity to use resources efficiently is essential.
Most vital of all are skilled teachers, a diminishing resource requiring large investment by the government to revive and replenish.
In most countries, student achievement graphs look like a one-humped camel: the majority of students are neither weak nor exceptional . In SA, though, Prof Brahm Fleisch of Wits University has described the “bimodal distribution of achievement” in South African education, meaning that there are a fair number of kids doing really well, a great deal doing very poorly and a small amount in the middle.
What is this two-humped camel if not the perpetuation of educational apartheid? It is not a policy of racism but the active protection of privilege and an indifference to the ma jority.
Just 11 days after being released from prison, Mandela said: “Education is an area that needs the attention of all our people, students, parents, teachers, workers and all others.” This year we must heed this call, whether as pupils, teachers, governing body members, parents or activists. Our national development and the lives of young people depend on our efforts.
This article by Doron Isaacs was originally published here, in the Business Day, on 6 Jan 2009.