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A crisis of opportunity: The state of education in SA

Submitted by Rachel Adams

To be excluded from the opportunities that one’s society has to offer is possibly one of the most disenfranchising experiences that one can endure. But to be promised opportunity and then never see that promise come to fruition must ultimately arouse a restlessness and hopelessness that is no doubt destructive for any society.

And while South Africa houses one of the strongest education systems on the continent, current research and statistics show that such restlessness is exactly what this system is currently creating among the majority of its learners. Whether for school-leavers or for students who have to make do with limited resources in most township and rural schools, the promise of opportunities for learning and employment is yet to be realised.

According to research, there is a ratio of about 80:20 poor to wealthy schools in the country, and many learners are merely being “warehoused” in conditions that are bound to produce drop-outs or students who are poorly prepared for work or university learning.

For the smaller percentage in this country that has been privileged enough to benefit from that part of the education system that actually works, it may not be very obvious that many apartheid-like learning conditions remain firmly in place for most learners.

While the Education Department has for a few years now been working at creating economically accessible, no-fee primary and secondary schools, many challenges persist. Curricula remain underdeveloped and where they have been developed, the training for teachers to deliver those curricula is limited or completely lacking. Learner-teacher ratios remain high, libraries are sporadically resourced or completely non-existent, computers are almost never part of education and students are forced to write science exams without adequate prior access to the necessary technologies.

For many township and rural schools, the miracle of integration that many Model C and private schools have experienced remains a dream. This means that many of our learners pass through the education system without ever accessing the lessons and opportunities that come with racial integration: the very integration that the apartheid struggle was dedicated to achieving. It is also probable that the location of most rural schools means that they are the last to receive reform and, by this time, morale may have been lost and unproductive habits embedded.

More troubling are the findings that many learners, male and female, are being subjected to sexual abuse from their teachers in exchange for grades. Unfortunately this taints the efforts of the many dedicated teachers who are committed, against all odds, to contribute to the intellectual development of their students. What becomes angering is the fact that many provincial education departments are wallowing in dysfunctionality and mismanagement, at times even failing to use the resources available to them to improve learning conditions.

And what is to be said of the many young heroes of this country (and we should indeed see them as heroes)? Despite such difficult learning conditions, these dedicated students continue to show up on the doors of their under-resourced classrooms, committed to learning what makes their country work and how they can contribute to making it work. They sit at their desks for a full 12 years, holding on to the promise that their learning will be the vehicle to lead them out of the squalor that they unfairly endure and into a career and life of which they can be proud.

The country’s current economic conditions make this realisation only available to a few. With almost 60% of matriculants unable to find employment and many others unable to meet the academic expectations of the country’s universities, it means that the education system is doing well to create a situation of despair.

Imagine what hopelessness and disappointment must arise when for the larger part of your childhood you have dreamt of pursuing the career that your education told you you should be able to achieve, but then limitations within the education system itself and larger socio-economic and political factors then stifle that dream. Does this not mean that you then are at high risk of becoming that vagrant, that robber, the prostitute, who has to resort to dehumanising means to attain some economic ability? Does this not mean that you then become a part of the population that fails to recognise what the mantra “alive with possibilities” could mean? Does this not mean that by virtue of your limitations you may then begin to question the idea of success by merit and ask why you have been excluded from the opportunities that made others successful?

And that is the purpose of this piece: hopefully to ignite a passion for all of us who read this to begin to see the pertinence (if we haven’t done so already) of creating and providing opportunities for our learners. To realise that too large a part of the young population in this country, and this continent, is being limited in their ability to contribute to the growth of our economies and the democratisation of our politics — not because they cannot, but because a system lacking in opportunity will not allow them to.

Take yourself to many of the under-resourced schools in this country and you will be heartbroken at the determination of learners to make something of their lives, starting with being in that very classroom, despite the fact that many of them may not even have had a morning meal. A fellow scholar once shared with me that in the group of five in which he used to play when he was younger, only one of them (him) had realised his dream to get to university. Two others are hardcore criminals, one was shot dead and the fourth is in a mental asylum. Yet within those young men lie little boys who once shared dreams of how they wanted to become doctors, scientists and accountants.

I, like my fellow scholar-friend, am willing to acknowledge that I have come as far as I have largely because of the opportunities that have been made available to me. Have I worked hard? Yes. Have I been an astute student? Yes. Have I dedicated myself to causes in which I believe? Yes. But not any more than the many students with whom I shared desks in the fairly under-resourced high school that I attended. Mine was a school full of committed teachers and students but it stunk with the rot of opportunity deficit. Many dreams died in that school as many progressive minds were told that this is where they would alight from the larger politico-economic world, to recede into the background along with their ambitions and capabilities.

Those students had as much zeal and determination as I did to make something of themselves in life, but something failed them. A limited number of scholarships, a scarce availability of mentoring resources, a lack of career guidance facilities, networks that could not provide information about where to apply for funding or how to apply effectively for a job (and we all know how important networks are): all of these and other factors summate what one would call a lack of opportunities, and South African learners are desperately in need of these.

For those of us therefore who have been able to benefit from the larger system, the moral responsibility to provide these much-needed opportunities lies with us. It must be acknowledged that there are numerous organisations dedicated to this cause, but there is still room for more input.

For those who are financially capable, there are numerous scholarship programmes in the country and on the continent that would benefit from more donors. For those with the skills, the creation of tutoring and mentoring programmes, after-school activities and career guidance services will help to grow the networks that young learners need. For companies that have not already tapped into this opportunity to exercise corporate social responsibility, the education arena is in desperate need of your input.

South Africa is a country that is anxious to create a larger skilled labour force and to decrease the feelings of hopelessness that have gained a plague-like status in the present day. It would seem, therefore, that the priority should lie in creating an education system whose promise for opportunity does not prove empty and whose opportunity makes the best of our learners’ potential.

Rachel Adams is studying towards her BSocSc honours degree in social anthropology at the University of Cape Town