Fix poorest schools first

Jonathan Jansen
File picture: Raymond Preston

It would be irresponsible to ignore the education opinions of our next (possible) president.

From Zamdela in the Free State to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, the former AU president has started her campaign to take over from her former husband when he leaves office in 2019.

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma speaks with a quivering voice so it sometimes seems as if she is unsure of herself or lacking in confidence.

But these stump speeches of a usually subdued public figure cannot be dismissed as “pure politics” for they reveal a lot about her thinking on social and political issues, including education.

She is correct, of course, that colonial education made black people feel inferior and that the conquest of people was not only physical but intellectual, in the form of ideas.

The doctor is also right that education is an effective equaliser in an unequal society and that quality of education is as important as access to education.

No economy grows without a vibrant education and training system.

It is understandable that a politician of the ruling party would link education to the language of liberation and the opportunistic caption of decolonisation. So far, mainly good. It is when the future (possible) president wanders off into criticism of former white schools (we should stop referring to them as former “Model C” schools) that we should be concerned.

“All of us,” she said, “need to look at what our kids are being taught in Model C schools.

“They are being taught it’s ‘us versus the ANC’. This is why they think colonialism is good.”

There is, of course, no evidence here that all/most/many/any of the former white schools teach this agenda, but that is beside the point.

The more important question is: what are public schools for?

No serious student of education believes that schools are neutral entities that stand above the politics of the day in any country.

So we should dispense quickly with some of the retorts to the next (possible) president’s statement that schools are non-political organisations. Wherever they are, schools teach some things and ignore other things.

Even in one country, schools teach the virtues of the ruling party or its excesses and vulgarities or find ways of upholding a glorious past. None of this should surprise us.

Teachers are human beings with their own personal histories and ideological preferences that come through in their teaching regardless of the official curriculum.

Schools, too, hold particular views about the past and present depending on where they are and whom they serve.

A public school that insists on holding a Christian assembly every Monday morning regardless of the religious diversity in the pupil body is making a very powerful statement of its disregard, even contempt, for those who believe otherwise.

That is a much more serious charge than teaching about the venality of the ruling party, but don’t expect the next (possible) president to say anything about force-feeding Christian values to fee-paying non-Christian pupils.

For a politician from one of the liberation movements to tell schools in this day and age not to be critical of the government or the ruling party is, of course, sheer hypocrisy.

In the 1970s and ‘80s schools were doing exactly that – at the centre of the protests against apartheid education and creatively involved in the drive for alternative education.

Teachers have a solemn responsibility to teach criticality not patriotism, love of country not admiration of government, respect for democratic values and not regard for the interests of a political party.

And if, in fulfilling its critical mandate, a school and its teachers raise questions about racial nationalism, whether black or white, that would be a very patriotic act indeed.

This kind of political talk is, of course, a red herring.

As everybody now knows, the real problem is that the majority of our schools, black schools, are poorly served by the party and the government the future (possible) president wishes to shield from criticism.

Imagine every disadvantaged school had a competent teacher, a textbook in every subject, a decent infrastructure for learning and an undisrupted teaching calendar for the entire school year.

Even before she takes the oath of office, this is the only question that I would love to ask our first (possible) woman president: what are you going to do to fix our poorest schools?

And while you’re at it, Madam President, don’t waste your time hitting on former white schools.

There are too few of them, and the children and grandchildren of the freedom fighters are all getting a fairly good education from them.

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