By Sindile Vabaza, an aspiring economist and avid writer, contributing author for the Free Market Foundation
A recent Equal Education report found that 80% of schools in South Africa are dysfunctional with endemic poverty, violence and a shortage of school materials plaguing these schools. It is an alarming report, not only because most of the pupils who attend these schools are black and coloured (which will have socio-political ramifications), but also because this will ensure that South Africa will most likely remain a low-skilled and low-wage economy for the foreseeable future.
Absenteeism and poor-quality teachers
Half of all South African pupils who have attended school for five years can’t do basic calculations; this was according to a 2015 TIMMS report on mathematics achievements among Grade 5 pupils in SA.
At the same time, it’s calculated that 10% of the country’s teachers are absent from school each day, while research found that 79% of SA Grade 6 maths teachers were classified as having content knowledge levels below the level at which they were teaching.
Dr Nick Taylor of Jet Education Services goes on to say in a paper titled Inequalities in Teacher Knowledge in South Africa:
… for the existence of three kinds of knowledge required for good teaching – disciplinary or content knowledge (CK), pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) and curriculum knowledge; further, that the first of these, while it may be insufficient on its own to support excellent teaching, is the foundation on which all other types of knowledge needed for effective pedagogy rest.
It then proceeds to describe the weak disciplinary knowledge resources held by the majority of South African teachers, and the inequitable distribution of this, the lifeblood of schooling, across the system.
The inequitable distribution of disciplinary knowledge resources is one of the primary sources of the significantly weaker outcomes exhibited by South African children from poor homes. The chapter concludes that, without significantly improving teacher disciplinary knowledge, and pedagogic proficiency, all other efforts aimed at improving the quality of South African schooling are likely to come up against low ceiling effects…
In other words, South Africa is a vicious self-reinforcing cycle of poor education outcomes, poor quality teachers and an education bureaucracy at the mercy of unions. This all feeds into a system of low skilled workers mostly unable to do any other kind of work other than menial work.
The usual objections to school choice
Commenting on the success of Leadership College in Manenberg in 2015, South African Democratic Teachers Union Deputy General, Jonovan Rustin, said if government and donors instead gave adequate resources to the other schools in the area, there would be no need for an independent school.
“Education should be the responsibility of the state. I don’t know enough about the school in Manenberg, but I don’t understand why the education department couldn’t give the resources to the schools already operating in the area,” he said.
His response is indicative of the entitlement and hubris of government and government aligned actors to the success of independent schools in low-income and violence-plagued communities.
In other words, government run education is somehow different in his mind to government run municipalities or healthcare or water or electricity services, all of which provide obscenely poor services for the financial outlay and regularly require more resources(bailouts) from taxpayers.
How school choice is freer and more democratic
One of the objections to school choice is that every South African should have a say in education regardless of taxation. Education is a “public good,” and we should collectively form the next generation, through government, because every South African has a clear interest in the education of the next generation.
The most important response to this is that the government ‘shaping minds’ to engineer the next generation is fundamentally at odds with a free society. It gives the government the power to homogenise society, potentially killing diverse communities and ideas by deciding which will – and will not – be reproduced.
School choice also gives working class and poor parents similar choices to middle- and upper-class parents when it comes to specific curricula and educational pedagogy. There are distinct differences for example between the educational pedagogies of child-centred learning within the Waldorf and Montessori schools and more traditional schooling choices.
Yet somehow the standardised approach to pedagogy and curricula in government run schools means that poor and working-class parents do not have the resources to seek alternatives, even if they feel those alternatives could be more fruitful for the wellbeing and future prosperity of their children.
There is a perversely inverted snobbery and elitism in denying those who cannot afford alternatives the means to seek them out, while telling them doing so is for the ‘public good.’
What schools like Leadership College demonstrate are the possibilities in education if education is wrestled away from largely unaccountable and government aligned bureaucrats. School choice is not a silver bullet solution (Leadership College is selective), but it is a vital cog in turning around our education system and therefore our economy and social order.
It will be good for the parents who will feel like they are part of a broader social order which empowers them to make the right decisions for their children, it will be good for pupils who will be in schools that more readily fit them, and it will be good for teachers who can employ their talents and strengths in schools which suit them too and provide a much more professionally rewarding environment. If Leadership College is anything to go by then it will be good for society as more children graduate high school being literate and numerate and many more going on to higher education.
If that is not a public good, then I don’t know what is.