Reflections on the National Project for Education

| November 7, 2010
By Anne Oberholzer

I feel privileged to have lived in South Africa since the late 1950s, and will hopefully live for a further 20 or even 30 years in this country.

In his address to the 2010 ISASA National Conference, Professor Crain Soudien reminded us of the complexities of our country. Both he and Professor Adam Habib pointed to ‘big drivers’ of change and emphasised the broad diversity in our society – social, political, economic, as well as in terms of educational opportunity and success.

What drives our education institutions?

The most powerful subtext in both presentations was the ‘National Project’ for education. The point was made that the relationship between public and private enterprises is not so much about whether government agencies and private entities are prepared to enter into partnerships, but rather about the underlying principles and philosophy that drive the establishment of these partnerships. What is in the minds of both partners?

Both speakers suggested that the underlying role of the partners should be that of agents in service of the larger National Project, and not custodians of sectoral interest.
These two presentations asked deep moral questions about what drives the purpose of our educational institutions – traditional independent schools, the relatively small but emerging phenomenon of independent ‘schools for profit’, the ex-Model C state schools as well as state schools across the financial divides in our society,  non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other organisations that support education, including the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).

There is substantial research that indicates that the better-performing students in Grade 12 in the final state examination come from some 11% of schools, the majority of these being ex-Model C schools and independent schools. These schools are also considered to be fully resourced, capably staffed with teachers qualified to teach
the subjects they are teaching, and serving communities that are able and fully committed to paying their school fees. It is well-established too that the bulk of successful university graduates come from independent schools and ex-Model C schools that write the state examination and those that write the IEB examination, with a  comparatively small percentage from other schools.

I make these observations not to criticise the better-resourced schools and the communities they serve but rather to position them as institutions of educational privilege in our society. I am mindful of the growing number of many low-fee independent schools and state ex-Model C schools that do their very best to provide poorer  communities with a sound education. They are hardly institutions of privilege.

Nonetheless, the issue to be raised is the commitment of schools of privilege to the National Project.

The National Project

What is the National Project? It has been stated clearly: quality education for all. So then what does this project mean for educational organisations and schools?
There are those schools that see their contribution to the National Project through direct participation in state structures. In these institutions, teachers participate actively in examining panels, marking panels and development clusters. Then there are other schools which may not be part of the state system but use the resources of their schools to feed back into the system through bursary schemes, the funding of and active participation in outreach programmes, support of state learners and teachers through “weekend” school programmes and other staff development initiatives, and the development and provisioning of textbooks and other learning resources. While maintaining their own vision and commitments, they make time and resources available to assist other schools to achieve more than they might otherwise have been able.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of these two positions, there is nevertheless a noticeable commitment to the South African education system to making an active contribution to change.

Not all schools are committed to the National Project

However, we also see schools seemingly behaving as if there is no bigger National Project or educational imperative and indeed, behaving blatantly as custodians of sectoral interest. These schools conduct entrance tests or apply questionable admission criteria to ensure that the ‘correct standards’ are maintained or, more accurately, that only members of a specific cultural or class group are admitted into the school.

They poach capable learners from both township and other schools – the sole purpose being the boosting of their number of top achievers in the National Senior Certificate Examination or in provincial sports teams, thereby making their marketing material more impressive. In such schools, financial profits are paid as dividends to owners or directors, sometimes before and, in other cases, after social programmes for the upliftment of others have been funded. Such schools separate themselves from the South African system completely by adopting a non-South African curriculum, thereby making contributions to local education debates and initiatives more difficult; they reject the implementation of social responsibility programmes because parents, concerned only with the good of their own children, are not interested in spending time or money or sharing facilities as a commitment to the vision of quality education for all. Clearly, in such institutions, the National Project has been overlooked
or given only lip service.

The learner base that can afford the fees of independent or ex-Model C schools is limited. Such behaviour then stimulates an unhealthy competitive environment reminiscent of a vicious political election campaign, one that is more about destroying the opposition by whatever means available than showing why a particular candidate is the best. In the education arena, we see side-swiping and point scoring at every opportunity; diminishing whatever good work others may be doing in order to boost one’s own numbers. While concentrating on destroying the opposition, there is complete oblivion to a greater vision.

It is high time that we reframe educational conversations of comparison and competition towards collaboration and a willingness to understand the different roles of players in the education field. It is time for a recognition and acceptance of the complementary roles played by those who work within government structures and those who work outside of them; time to realise that sincere commitment to a common goal does not pitch one independent school against another, does not pitch state schools against independent schools, does not pitch the IEB against the state, does not pitch government against structures in civil society, does not pitch one person against another.

It is time to realise a critical call to action to build together a country where quality education for all is a reality.

Many worked to reform apartheid education

During the apartheid era, the effort to reform the education system was divided broadly across two approaches: those who worked from within government structures to initiate, stimulate and direct change toward a non-racial democratic South Africa, and those who worked from outside formal government structures – or even from outside the country – toward the same goal.

Many schools focused on developing citizens equipped to question and challenge the injustices they saw, to bring apartheid to its knees. It is no surprise that the schools currently participating in the Historic Schools Restoration Project were the very schools destroyed by the apartheid government – they were recognised as developing the kind of citizen that the government of the day could not afford if it was to uphold its policy of apartheid successfully.

There were also independent schools that refused to accept the constraints of a racially divided education system. Their position was the key driver in the establishment of the IEB as the successor of the Joint Matriculation Board ( JMB) – the only non-racial examining authority in apartheid South Africa. It is not surprising, then, that the right of an independent school to choose its own assessment authority is so highly valued by many in the independent schooling sector.

Resistance to apartheid policies was also the motivation for the establishment of many successful NGOs and educational organisations that insisted on working across the racial divide. These structures in civil society today provide the checks and balances required to maintain an effective democratic society. As such, a society committed
to a democratic future should protect structures of civil society, even though one’s own vision of nation building may be different.

Beware the potential to colonise and subjugate

In our fledgling democracy, educational institutions have followed again these two paths in nation-building. There are those who have committed themselves fully to working within government, and there are those who are working from outside formal government structures. Both approaches provide for an expression of patriotism and dedication to building quality education for all. It is the underlying philosophy that drives these individuals and institutions that is important.

I would identify a constant danger for a democratic education system to be the potential to colonise the minds and then subjugate the souls of its children. While that threat is dormant and seemingly far removed from our society at this point in time, it is wise to remember history: there are many examples of how swiftly a nation can be
enslaved by powers of darkness – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Red China and, closer to home, on our own northern borders. Said the theorist Paulo Freire (1921-1997): “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

A vibrant education system is one that encourages continuous debate and discussion about how it should ensure that its young people are adequately equipped to accept their responsibility as the citizenry of the future. The key challenge for an education institution is to ask itself: ‘are we about preservation of sectoral interests or are we about an inclusive transformation of our society?’

When parents consider sending their children to a specific school, they should ask themselves the same question: ‘how does this institution contribute to building the future of our nation?’ After all, our children will inherit the world that we have created – will they be proud of our legacy?

Anne Oberholzer is CEO of the IEB.

Tags:

Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2010

About the Author ()

News posts added for Independent Education by Global Latitude DMA

Comments are closed.