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Reflections on 10 years of basic education

| October 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

Challenges to the transformation of basic education in South Africa’s second decade of democracy

This report was commissioned in 2004 by the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Inclusion and Exclusion Project. Its findings – presented in this extract – are still largely relevant today.

By Kim Porteus and Enver Motala

The paper is not intended to evaluate the performance of the government during the first 10 years of democracy. It is primarily intended as a discussion document to stimulate public dialogue about critical issues facing education as we move beyond our third election and into the second decade of democracy. This paper does not specifically dwell on the range of successes that we have achieved in education. The basic reorganisation of a non-racial education system and the transformation of curriculum represent massive successes in the brief period of our democracy. Rather than focus on these successes, however, we identify core challenges that continue to face our transformation agenda.

Many barriers remain

We conclude, first, that the deep-seated effects and practices of apartheid are proving far more difficult to eradicate than was expected in 1994. They remain extremely resistant to change. At the time of the birth of democracy, it was difficult to appreciate the intractability of the historical, spatial, economic and particular vested interests that remain in school communities and society at large. Change has been slow to impact upon the poorest schools despite some farsighted and bold policies across a wide range of educational areas.

Second, we conclude that many barriers remain to the reconstruction of the education system. One of the most important achievements in education – the achievement of greater access in enrolment in primary schools – is tempered by indications across a spectrum of systemic evaluations that all is not well in how learners learn. Many of the challenges relate to quite fundamental educational problems. These include the paucity and uneven distribution of educational resources, the slow pace of change in classroom practice and of educator development, the under-resourcing of early childhood development, and a lack of implementation of sound educational language policy and practice.

Slow socio-economic development

Our third conclusion relates to the interdependence of socioeconomic development and education. While quality education can help propagate social development, deep social and economic ‘un-freedoms’ undermine the quality of education. While individual children living in poor neighbourhoods may excel in education, the link between social deprivation, poverty and unfulfilled educational potential is well documented. Poor nutrition and health, inadequate housing and services, and unemployment and household poverty all play a role in compromising the educational pathways of the poor.

Despite important interventions – including the success of the child support grants – gains have not yet been great enough to work against the momentum of inequity facing the nation’s young. The structure of the economy, combined with a range of global pressures, has worked to support the meta-structure of poverty facing South African children. The continuation of deep poverty and severe inequity threatens the educational project in the long term.

Challenging global environment

The global environment has proven a difficult one for democracy building and the privileging of aggressive educational redress. The values most dominant in the global economy emphasise competition over cooperation, detachment over compassion, the private over the public, the individual over the social. Further, globally dominant ideas seek to play down the role of the state in mediating and ameliorating the basic welfare of its people and, particularly, of its most vulnerable members.

The persistence and, in some ways, deepening of inequity, signals a most important phase in the process of educational change where, unless decisive measures are taken to deal with the divisions of the past, we run the risk of their becoming further entrenched for future generations of South African children. The continuation of a divided society presents a frightening threat for the future of our nation. As we move into the second decade of democracy, we are faced with several questions. While there are pressures from the global environment for specific social policy choices, how can we push forward more aggressively on issues of basic redress? How can we resist the individualistic tendencies of global ideas and insist upon livelihoods of dignity for all South Africans? How can we find ways, both within and beyond the educational system, more aggressively to support the lives of young children born into poverty?

A new vocabulary needed

Finally, we conclude that a new vocabulary for education is needed to motivate the transformation required in the second decade of our democracy. It is not enough to talk about the health of the schooling system in terms of the conventional performance indicators that have become the dominant vocabulary of systemic improvement. The success of schooling cannot essentially be captured in league tables, or even in the state of classroom facilities. The vocabulary of performance indicators, while having its role, must be superseded by a vocabulary of democracy, social hope, compassion, and a sense of personal and community agency. This new vocabulary should shift the conversation of education toward its most important goals – preparing young people and their communities to participate increasingly in our democracy and to confront the development challenges of our times.

Kim Porteus is Executive Director of the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development (NMI). Enver Motala is Chairperson of the NMI Board of Trustees. This extract is reprinted here with their kind permission.

Nelson Mandela founded the NMI in 2007 as part of a partnership between the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Department of Education and the University of Fort Hare. It is based in the Eastern Cape at the University of Fort Hare – Mandela’s alma mater. The NMI is a founding partner with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Hamburg Society of the Schools for Africa Campaign. The NMI works in and through long-term partnerships with rural schools and communities to transform education and rural development through applied research, teacher and leadership development, community mobilisation, and building sustainable public institutions.

Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2011

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