While driving to school this morning I heard on the news that a school in Limpopo has been without textbooks and teachers since the beginning of the year. The story was framed as yet another example of government inefficiency and an echo from the past when the same thing happened to a few schools in the same province. On my drive home from school the news bulletin announced that the Gauteng MEC of education, Panyaza Lesufi, has closed a school in Roodepoort indefinitely because of a community protest. Throughout this week I have also been thinking of the children who have been affected by the xenophobic attacks that have gripped Durban and Johannesburg. The trauma and dysfunction that affects not only their well-being and safety but their access to education. These events are among the many cases that cast a shadow over any progress that we have made in South Africa, especially where education is concerned.
Earlier this month Equal Education had yet another campaign demanding the minister of education to release provincial implementation plans for norms and standards for infrastructure. The protest was held in Pretoria, Cape Town, and King William’s Town. The focus on the norms and standards was sparked by the death of a six-year-old learner in Limpopo: he died after falling in a pit latrine toilet while at school. Another example of the problems in our education system. Many people ignore these challenges because they suggest no hope in the system or are deeply concerned about the state of our education. The truth is, it is difficult to talk about education in South Africa because the narrative doesn’t seem to change.
The 2015 Education for All Global Monitoring report was recently released and it echoes some of the challenges that South Africa faces as well as the sub-Saharan region. In 2000 the World Education Forum set out the Education for All goals for countries to achieve. Since then, participating countries have been monitored and the progress indicates that more still needs to be done. The report shows that “the number of children enrolled in primary school in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 75% to 144 million in 2012. But 30 million children remain out of school in the region”. The report also shows that “In sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest girls remain the most likely to never attend primary school. In Guinea and Niger in 2010, over 70% of the poorest girls had never attended primary school, compared with less than 20% of the richest boys”. This is a worrying statistic. It won’t come as a surprise to most South Africans as there have been many reports about the effects pregnancy has on girls in many areas in South Africa. Education is a gendered and political space everywhere in the world.
The report also shows that “Burundi, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and the United Republic of Tanzania more than halved the percentage of children who had never been to school. South Africa reduced its adult illiteracy rates by two-thirds. Equatorial Guinea had fewer than four girls to boys in primary school in 2000, but has now achieved gender parity. Ghana had pre-primary enrolment rates of only 47% in 1999, but now provides universal access at that level”. These improvements are small victories in light of the obvious challenges that remain.
Given the attitude towards education reform in South Africa (and perhaps in the region); the report appears to be the prophet of doom. One could be left asking, are there no positive aspects to education in the region? Unfortunately, they are marginal compared to what the findings would have us believe about the future of education. In South Africa there are glimmers of hope. Earlier this year new schools joined in the fray that is low-fee independent schools (Pioneer Academies and SPARK schools). Some may argue that this is not what is going to change the face of our education system. This might appear to be true but the attention these schools get create a different atmosphere in South Africa. They send a clear message to parents: your children deserve better and if parents demand it, better options are possible.
The stories I mention as well as the Education for All report should make all of us think a little deeper about education. The reality of the gap between the rich and the poor is one that must be challenged. We cannot sustain a system where education is fraught and complicit in the widening economic gap. We should all have a vested interest in education and statistics indicate that more work needs to be done not only in South Africa but on the continent as well.