Education reform a vital need

It is pretty much agreed in the business and investor community that the biggest risk to our collective future in SA is a political rather than, say, an economic or financial crisis.

This notion is also shared by political parties that favour a market-driven, liberal or social democratic development path.

Within the category of political risk sit two big threats: social instability and populism.

As these pose the greatest clear and present dangers, what can be done to mitigate them, and promote social stability, and sustainable economic and public policy?

It has been widely held by the business and political elite, and the institutions that manage the economy – the Treasury and the SA Reserve Bank – that the way to ward off these dangers is through the promotion of inclusive growth.

The most important pillar of social policy for building inclusivity – education – has been the biggest failure of the democratic era

There is a lot of agreement among elites about what this means and the structural reforms necessary to get private investment and hence growth going.

This understanding will be the thrust of the two economic stakeholder summits to be held this month, one on jobs and the other on investment.

But while it is true that growth is essential to the whole project of building a sustainable future, if there is one thing we should have learnt from the past two decades it is that it is not enough.

Without effective social policies designed to promote equality, a tide of even quite good growth, say 4%, will not be inclusive enough to lift all boats.

And, unfortunately, the most important pillar of social policy for building inclusivity – education – has been the biggest failure of the democratic era.

What does this mean for SA’s social compacting process?

We can expect, for instance, that this week’s jobs summit will emerge with a slate of good and well-thought-out sector and project-based solutions that will play a role in creating some jobs.

Regulatory changes – for instance to the mining regime, tourism sector and the broadband spectrum – should also begin to unlock some investment in the medium term.

But without effective social reform, especially in education, the deals struck in these summits will not mount much of a defence against the dangers of social instability and populism.

They will not be enough to create a belief in the future among either the rich or the poor.

What can be done? A national effort should be made to save schooling.

Stakeholders need to ask what it will take and what it will cost, and weigh this against another 20 years of incremental improvements in a sea of dysfunctionality.

Weigh this further against the crisis of youth unemployment, and the growing signs of social disaffection and alienation: rising rates of murder and rape, violence against women and children, xenophobic looting and anarchic forms of political protest.

Weigh it also against mounting support for the EFF – which has captured the imagination of the urban youth and doubled its support since the last election.

The core of the problem in schooling is teaching.

Second and closely related is management.

For more than a decade, education department authorities and teachers’ trade unions have been locked in a destructive stand-off over measuring teacher competency and the appropriate remedies.

Rich and detailed research has shown that tens of thousands of teachers in township and rural schools just don’t have the cognitive skills necessary to teach the children under their charge.

This is because they suffer from cognitive gaps themselves, also having been poorly taught in the first place.

We see the results in numerous indicators; eight out of 10 children in grade 4 are unable to understand what they read; young people entering higher education at technical and vocational education training colleges crash out at a rate of 90% as they are unable to pass the high school numeracy and literacy modules.

A union-bashing approach will not work. A head-to-head with the SA Democratic Teachers Union will mean a strike and 800,000 kids on the streets.

It requires a negotiated and sensitive trade-off, balancing the fears of teachers for their livelihoods and the interests of children in poor communities.

The government – and the ANC, which likes to claim it is the leader of society – should also take responsibility for providing the other stakeholders in education, parents and communities, with the tools to play an active role in educating their children.

An educated public is a public that is able to take advantage of economic opportunities and even help create them.

An educated public will be less disposed to promises made by young men in red berets and more disposed to investing in themselves for the future.

● This article first appeared on BDLive