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School kids pay the cost of political schizophrenia

The African National Congress is inclined towards self-defeating behaviour. Nowhere has this political schizophrenia been as glaring as in the government’s inability to deliver a sound basic education.

The right to education is a cornerstone of the Freedom Charter, the founding document of the modern ANC. Appropriately so, since there is a surfeit of research showing that aside from obvious personal rewards, a good school system is critical to economic success and correlates with a country’s performance on every indicator of social wellbeing. And if that’s not enough to focus officialdom’s energy, it should remember that the apartheid policy of restricting black South Africans to rudimentary learning culminated in the 1974 riots.

Unfortunately, the ANC has taken the woeful state schooling system it inherited and rather than rehabilitate it, has trashed it further. Public schooling has been battered by failed curriculum changes; by the hasty retrenchment of experienced teachers; by the closure, belatedly reversed, of training colleges; by the disbandment of the schools inspectorate; by the perennial failure to deliver textbooks and most damagingly, by government’s tolerance of a teacher union militancy that has corroded any surviving culture of learning.

For what it spends on education — R24 000 per child per annum — South Africa scores among the lowest returns internationally on every criterion. In contrast, Zimbabwe spends R216 per child per annum but according to the United Nations is one of the most literate African countries, with levels of numeracy and English-language fluency that put SA to shame.

One explanation for Zimbabwe’s comparative success is that parental involvement and teacher dedication have somehow survived 15 years of economic and political turmoil. There is also predictability and accountability. Zimbabweans still sit the British A and O level exams and pupils know that if they fail a year they will have to repeat it, unlike their counterparts in SA, with its elastic grading standards.

Given the level of SA’s dysfunction, one would expect the government to do everything possible to keep lubricated those few educational cogs still operational, such as the independent schools. Instead it is shamelessly reneging on paying the subsidies that keep low-fee independents going.

Five provinces – Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and North West – have defaulted upon or arbitrarily reduced the pupil subsidy they are obligated to pay in terms of the government’s education policy. This affects 630 schools and 130 000 learners, who are currently paying a maximum of R15 000 a year in fees.

The provinces’ explanation that they can’t afford the subsidy is rubbish. Only about 0.2% of provincial education budgets is spent on the subsidy.

More likely an explanation is a lingering ideological distaste within ANC circles towards private education, which is seen as elitist – although with two thirds of children in private schools being African, most of them not from wealthy families, it is clearly not – and a threat to dirigiste ANC control.

This is classical foot-shooting stuff. Many, if not most, of the low-fee independents exist because there is no state school, or it’s of very poor quality. If the state has to take over the education of these independent school children, it will cost the taxpayer almost double the subsidy amount.

What the ANC perhaps most dislikes about a burgeoning independent school sector is that it is a constant and humiliating reminder of government failure.

Independent school pupil numbers have doubled in a dozen years to over half a million kids in 1 571 schools, of which 451 were established in the past five years. In comparison, state schools have 11.9 million ”learners”, marginally down from 12 million in 2007. Since the formerly white schools have more applicants than they can take, it’s perfectly clear that African pupils and parents confronted with failed or overcrowded state schools are voting with their feet.

The Public Protector and the Human Rights Council are investigating the subsidy issue and there is also an on-going legal appeal. It’s disheartening that any such chivvying of government should be necessary.