Education – Our Saving Grace

Those of us who are managing to hold our heads above water are attached to a much larger number of people who remain submerged, with few options for personal development.

(South Africa) cannot be strong or remain stable if we maintain the iceberg model.

We cannot focus our energies on pulling a few more people out of the water. We need to change the model entirely. I believe that education and leadership are key to changing the model.

Education and leadership sound like obvious and feel-good topics. There are very few people who would argue that we don’t need them.

So why is it so difficult to get them right? Why do we not seem to be progressing in our country, in spite of so many resources and so much effort?

Why do we seem to be moving backwards in many ways? What do we need to be doing differently?

Let me start with education. Our education system is in crisis.

We all know about the low levels of functional literacy and numeracy of the children coming out of our schooling system.

It is a crisis which affects the black, female, peri-urban and rural members of our society worst of all. These are the effects we see today – the symptoms, one might say.

I say this without wanting to reduce the suffering of today’s youth, who have not been adequately taught the basics they need to succeed in the world.

But to address these symptoms, we need to understand the systemic causes within the overall education system.

There are five inter-related aspects of our education system that scare me deeply.

These are the social belief systems that undermine our children’s self-confidence, the lack of early childhood development, the high pre-matric drop-out rates, the low levels of mathematical comprehension in our schools, and the long-term effects of teacher quality.

Combined, they mean that our interventions today will probably only start to bear fruit at a systemic level in 30 or 40 years’ time.

There remains a deep-seated belief within our society that maths and science are difficult and that they are particularly difficult for black children and especially for female black children.

These attitudes are held by many black parents and black teachers, by neighbours and friends, so that the message is continually passed to our children that it is normal to dislike maths and science, that it is normal to fail these courses, that it is an achievement to pass with the minimum number of marks, and so on.

This message is particularly strong for black girls in rural or township schools.

Doing well at maths and science therefore means exceeding expectations of mediocrity, unless a child is lucky enough to have an exceptionally ambitious or visionary parent or relative or teacher.

This is the direct inverse of the expectations of children in many Asian countries, where excelling at maths is a minimum requirement and not a maximum achievement.

We must find ways of addressing this internalized racism and sexism, so that the next generations can start learning from a level playing field rather than having to first dig themselves out of a deep hole of self-doubt.

Second, our society and our schooling system place far too little emphasis on structured early childhood development.

Self-confidence and trust in the future, inquisitiveness and the ability to problem solve all depend on cognitive developments that happen up to the age of five, so before the start of formal primary schooling.

The National Development Plan has now recognised how crucial this phase is for addressing many of the fundamental educational challenges in our society, but it will take extraordinary amounts of commitment and investment to put in place the people, infrastructure and attitudes necessary to really make a difference at this level.

Very small percentages of South African children, particularly in disadvantaged communities, are in crèches or pre-schools that do anything even vaguely educational.

Very few families in poor and rural areas teach their pre-school children in the home through reading books or playing educational games.

For us to systemically change early childhood development, we would need to train legions of early childhood professionals, find ways of lifting pre-school teachers to a status and level of pay appropriate to their importance to this country’s future, build appropriate infrastructure, and convince parents that education does not only happen in schools but also in the home.

Many of the professional associations along with corporate social investment and other dedicated citizen initiatives focus on augmenting the teaching of maths and sciences in high school.

For most children, this is too late.

Of course, it is harder to see the impact of investments in early childhood development than in high school students.

It takes many many years, rather than having an immediate metric like matric passes or university entrances. It is harder to pick individuals to mentor. But we need to find a way of engage with the education system from the bottom up, and not only at the tail end.

Thirdly, we are paying too little attention to the pre-matric drop-out rate.

National debates about the quality of our schooling system tend to focus on matric pass rates.

But out of the estimated 1.6 million children who started school in 2000, only about 500 000 made it to matric in 2012. That is just over 30 percent.

Seventy percent dropped out along the way.

 

 

** Broken Schools

 

 When we focus on our economy’s need for scarce skills in professional fields, such as accounting, we completely overlook the vast majority of our youth who are lost to these pathways very early on, abandoned by the education system, often through no fault of their own.

We know that in a country with such deeply entrenched inequality, a child’s chance of good educational attainment has less to do with their innate intellectual ability and more with the accident of where they are born.

Thousands upon thousands of potentially brilliant accountants, engineers, economists, doctors, scientists and other professionals never make it beyond 9th or 10th or 11th grade due to our broken schools.

My fourth fear is the severity of our failure to teach our children basic mathematics. In general, this is well known.

But did you know that only 30 944 learners passed matric in 2012 with maths scores sufficient for professions such as engineering, medicine and indeed accounting?

Thirty-one thousands out of 500 000 who wrote matric – that is 14 percent. Thirty-one thousand out of 1.6 million who could have been writing matric if they had not dropped out of school – that is two percent. This is the “born free” generation.

They are not being given the tools to lead independent and economically successful lives, nor to join professions needed for our overall economy to flourish. Some education experts have estimated that we will not be producing enough basic maths skills to feed our professional needs for the next forty years.

 

 

** Our Teachers

 

This brings me to my final point about the extent of the crisis in our education system, namely the quality of our teachers.

Firstly, there is shortage of 50 000 teachers overall in our schools right now. We need to add 25 000 qualified teachers to our national pool every year to keep up with demand and to replace the many seasoned teachers who are reaching retirement age, but our universities are only producing 10 000.

So every year we fall behind by 15 000 more.

To make matters worse, many of the existing and newly qualified teachers are not very competent, especially in fields such as maths and science.

If there are only 31 000 young people entering our universities with good maths skills, and this “elite” can choose among all the professions, how many do you think will choose to become teachers?

Because of the low status and difficult working conditions of teachers, many intelligent learners do not choose to enter the profession and many of the more talented teaching graduates leave teaching after a few years for greener pastures in the corporate or government sectors.

Levels of teacher turnover are highest in rural communities and lower income areas – so in our poorest, black communities.

A study in 2005 found that 55 percent of teachers would want to do other work if they could.

This means that instead of getting the cream of the crop to teach our children, we end up with many who are stuck in teaching as a last resort.

This is not to disrespect the many excellent and committed individuals who do teach, but it is a systemic problem that we have to face up to.

What this means is that there is no immediate end in sight for the education crisis.

The teachers currently in the system were mostly trained under the apartheid system and often have inadequate subject knowledge for what they are teaching.

They are passing this on to current learners and will continue to do so until they start retiring in the mid-2030s. Teachers trained post-1994 may not be much better prepared, especially for the new curriculum which came into effect in 2007.

 

 

** So what can be done?

 

First, we have to face the crisis head-on, acknowledging its depth and its longevity, and that making small interventions at the margins – such as providing remedial maths lessons to matric year learners – may help some individuals but will not change anything systemically.

I have already mentioned the importance of early childhood development, in my view.

Continuous professional development for teachers is the other area of focus.

Overall, we need to think about education in terms of generations, planning our interventions long-term.

This also means not forgetting the needs of those who are already in the system or who have already been failed by the system, such as the vast majority of youth without any educational qualifications at all.

 

 

** Leadership

 

The need for an inter-generational understanding brings me to the second important value – namely the importance of leadership. We need to educate our youth to lead and we need to have extraordinary leadership to fix our education system.

There are five aspects of leadership that I value and that I think accountants often embody. 

These are also the values that are needed to transform our education system. 

They are anti-mediocrity, patience, persistence, pragmatism and knowing right from wrong.

Anti-mediocrity is not settling for getting it mostly or almost right, but for putting in place the systems and the effort to ensure excellence.

A maths score of 100 percent should be a realistic standard, not be an impossibility, just as a balance sheet must balance exactly, not more or less.

Patience means the ability to take a long view, understanding that quick returns are not always sustainable and that a longer lead time may result in larger rewards at the end.

Anyone who has gone through many years of studying, additional courses and learnerships knows the value of patience. 

Persistence means the ability to work through the tedious, tiring and frustrating aspects of a task with dedication and attention to detail, and not just seeking to skip from the excitement of visioning and proclaiming a new plan to the excitement of claiming success.

As accountants you know that a beautiful system will not work unless the sums add up, and you cannot know if the sums add up until you have counted and recounted the beans.

Like patience, persistence is about deferring gratification until you are sure you have earned it.

Pragmatism means the ability to move from ideas to practice. It is not the same as conservatism, which is limiting ideas to what is already practiced. Rather, it is the ability to take visionary ideas and to logically develop the steps that need to be taken to move from the present reality, properly and clearly understood, to the future vision.

Finally, knowing right from wrong is at the core of leadership, whether in guarding the integrity of a nation or the integrity of a company or organisation.

The steps we take as leaders should not be about finding clever ways of hiding our mistakes or seeking to transfer them to some other convenient entity.

As leaders, we need to build systems that allow us to see our weaknesses, not that cocoon us in false confidence based on a lack of knowledge about ourselves.

Unfortunately, mediocrity, instant gratification, impractical ideology and the willingness to be flexible in terms of right and wrong are all rife in our society, including among many of our supposed leaders.

Many of our youth aspire to parade wealth without consideration of how it is earned, and aspire to holding professional positions without consideration of the hard work required to reach and indeed to responsibly fill those positions.

 

 

** The Way Forward

 

We must hold our schools and our education leaders accountable.

We must all ensure that we understand what is happening with our education system, what measures are being proposed to address the challenges, and whether those measures are working. – The African Executive

• Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi is the leader of the 150 000-strong Royal Bafokeng Nation based in Phokeng in the North West Province of South Africa.

September 2013
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