Teach Your Children Ill.

South Africa’s public services are rubbish. Almost everybody agrees on that. The providers of public services are happy to tell you that this is the case. So are their administrators, and their political bosses, and their political opponents, and the press. They all agree that the public services are a load of rubbish, and that this situation is someone else’s fault. As a result everybody is happy.

Except, of course, the recipients of the public services.

Possibly the public services are not quite as rubbishy as is insisted-on. Possibly everybody involved in the services finds it convenient to say such things. In other words, maybe things aren’t quite so bad. In South Africa, oddly enough, anybody who claims that things might not be as bad as they are painted — who suggests that maybe the HIV figures aren’t as bad as UNAIDS claims, or that the crime statistics aren’t as bad as the DA desires — is treated as a kind of traitor to the cause and hounded out of polite society. Thus it is rather difficult to get at the facts.

The Creator knows a little bit about education, so that might be a good place to start. Education is possibly the best place to start because without good education it is difficult to resolve any of the other problems. What are the problems with education?

The pre-1994 South African system of school education was fairly authoritarian in structure. It was based on the notion that information was more important than process, and that relevance to life-experience was largely irrelevant. Pupils were jumped through ever-higher and ever-narrower hoops, and “streamed” through nominally different levels of education in the same year. Supposedly this meant that more intellectually adept pupils received a higher grade of education, but usually it meant that more affluent pupils received it, since they had more opportunity to make use of the world around them. Teachers were sometimes competent, sometimes not.

Of course, this reflected conditions in the best schools available. In the 1970s the massification of black education generated a vast number of schools with hardly any competent teachers, a problem solved by hiring loads of unqualified, demotivated and incompetent people. This was compounded by a general lack of facilities, even in urban areas; in rural areas, pupils were lucky to have classrooms with roofs, let alone desks. In the urban areas, the problem was worsened when people of school-going age became the spearheads of the anti-apartheid resistance; like their counterparts in the Western universities in the 1960s, they considered closing the educational system a vital form of protest, and therefore did so.

The government responded with violence and repression, sometimes even in rural areas when the youth there began flexing their political muscles. One side-effect of this was the total demoralization of teachers, who were viewed as sell-outs when they wanted to teach and as goof-offs if they endorsed the boycotts. It didn’t help that the government decided that sending school inspectors into such areas was too dangerous (since such inspectors were rightly seen as the political commissars of Bantu Education) and therefore for a long period the schools were not only out of control because of pupil resistance, they were unsupervised by anybody.

This bred a claim that a “lost generation” was growing up. It’s far from clear that this was the case — while pupils passing through schools in the 1980s were not learning much that was on the curriculum, they were certainly picking up a kind of education which gave them a lot of adaptive skill. However, what was happening was that the education system itself was disintegrating.

Then came 1994 and, as we know, everything changed, all the problems were solved and the Rainbow Nation was born. What was obviously needed was to recognise what the problems were and how to solve them, and the problems were partly administrative, partly morale-related, and partly skills-based. The average impoverished school had weak leadership, dispirited teachers who were not properly qualified to do their job even when they cared about it, pupils who viewed school as an embarrassing waste of time, and facilities which were generally worthless — if they weren’t worthless when the school was built, they were swiftly plundered or trashed.

What was needed, oddly enough, was discipline. (Imagine the Creator in leather with a horsewhip. No, on second thoughts, please don’t.) External discipline and self-discipline; willingness to mutually struggle to reconstruct the school system, backed by punishment for those who failed to do this, which would require a solid knowledge of what was going on.

What actually happened, however, was that in the 1992-4 negotiations process, the white parties pressed for education, like other services, to be devolved to the provinces instead of staying at national level. The original plan was that the country would be split up into rich white and poor black provinces; that didn’t quite happen, but the effects were to divide rich Western Cape and Gauteng from poor everybody else.

Besides, since central administration of the schooling system seemed to have failed, central government found it convenient to scrap it. Instead schooling administration was handed over to the provincial governments which had never done anything quite like that before; in the homelands the system of schooling had been a bleak joke in most cases, while in former white areas hardly any competent administrator had any experience of the problems of black schooling. This meant that while the central system cheerfully cast off all responsibility for school administration, the provincial governments had ironclad excuses for any failures. A worse recipe for administration could hardly have been found.

To compound this, the new Minister for Education was an academic intellectual who decided, quite rightly, that the big problem was the authoritarian curriculum. He therefore cast about for a less authoritarian curriculum. (In fact in most areas the curriculum wasn’t being pursued meaningfully, authoritarian or not, but the Ministry didn’t seem to know this.) Unfortunately, this plan to democratise the curriculum conflicted with another plan to retool education for economic growth — essentially, education which would serve the interests of business, though nobody admitted that this was the plan. The eventual compromise was imitating the “outcomes-based” education system which had spread across the Anglophone educational systems of the world like necrotising fasciitis and had much the same impact.

Theoretically, “outcomes-based” education seemed sensible. You set down what you expected a given educational process to do, you developed educational procedures towards those goals, and you taught with those goals in mind, afterwards assessing to see that they had been met. It sounds perfect. However, as it was implemented, the goals were nebulous and yet fixed, based on criteria which almost nobody understood, developed by educational administrators in Pretoria with business concerns in mind. Assessing these outcomes involved huge bureaucratic processes which theoretically would have swamped teachers if they had been willing to perform the process, while the practice of teaching was largely unexamined. Even competent teachers in well-equipped schools found themselves unable to say exactly what this new system required them to do in order to attain outcomes which they were not permitted to set themselves.

This has bred a new authoritarian system, far more openly hostile to effective education than before, in which central administrators have vastly more right to interfere with what the teachers were doing. (Whereas in the past “educational experts” could only meddle during the visits of inspectors to schools, nowadays the meddling is ongoing, and schools are supposed to constantly issue reports and connive at their own bureaucratised oppression.) Fortunately, the administrators are often lazy, inept and frivolous. Ironically, the more effectively the system operated, the more harm was done. Thus the system damaged functioning educational structures.

There were other problems. GEAR entailed the need to freeze spending, despite the obvious need to build and staff more schools. As a result, the Department of Education decided to get rid of teachers — but since they could not legally be fired, they had to be encouraged to leave. Of course, the ones most likely to leave voluntarily were the ones most skilled and thus capable of getting jobs elsewhere. This “brightsizing” was potentially devastating, especially in the most functioning state schools.

Another brilliant cost-cutting idea pursued by the next Minister was to reduce costs by getting rid of teachers’ training colleges, which were often dysfunctional institutions. There had been a shortage of teachers even before the brightsizing, and now the number of teachers coming into the system was dramatically cut; virtually the only institutions producing teachers by the turn of the millennium were universities and the technical colleges which were rebranded as universities. Teacher production plummeted and class sizes soared. (For a period the Department of Education even stopped its traditional support for teacher training without providing a replacement system, so for a while nobody was encouraged to become a teacher.)

Looking back on all this, the wonder is that South Africa has an educational system at all. Some of the problems have been gradually mended; potential teachers are getting bursaries again, the universities have expanded their teaching programmes (though this is itself problematic because the emphasis is necessarily on quantity rather than quality, and the new teaching programmes may not be as effective as the old ones were). On the other hand, since the products of the schools are increasingly inept at almost any subject, partly because of the nebulosity of the curriculum and partly because of the collapse of effective administration, so the products of universities (themselves savaged by budget cuts and amok bureaucratisation) may be less effective than they were.

Nobody, of course, is checking this, possibly for fear of what they might find.

Most observers would agree with portions of the above analysis, though some would say that there are many pockets where people have been able to transcend the destructive effects of government policy. Also, some of these policies are not destructive in themselves, but in the ham-handed, exploitative and partisan way they have been implemented, and with competent leadership the system can be made to work. (Unfortunately South Africa has been cursed with a series of inept Ministers of Education.)

However, the system is definitely failing at the moment as a result of implementing the new policies. This leads to people like Jonathan Jansen essentially arguing for a return to pre-1994 policies. This is not only exploitative, it amounts to a rejection of egalitarianism (since the old system disproportionately benefited people in Jansen’s position). Hence this kind of response does not have a useful effect; it simply affirms a laager mentality among the already-paranoid hacks of the Department of Education.

There is, however, a hint that not all the problems exist within the government. For instance, according to an SABC bulletin, in Alexandra township, the Department of Education recently discovered a school where teachers were allegedly failing to show up, showing up drunk, or feeling up female pupils. Twenty of the teachers were suspended. Well, we couldn’t have that, so the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union brought all the teachers in Alexandra out on strike, apparently in a massive show of support for irresponsibility, alcoholism and sexual harassment.

To be fair, SADTU did not say “Up with raping scholars while we’re drunk!”. Instead, a spokesman (emphasis on the “man”) said that he did not think that the Department of Education could prove its case against the teachers concerned. Hence, in SADTU’s opinion, it was better that the case should not go ahead in the first place. Why look into the possibility that the educational system is a cloak for corruption and incompetence? Why not let sleeping rabid dogs lie?

If such an attitude is widespread among our teachers, perhaps it is not so surprising that the educational department has trouble getting the system to work.

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