Incomes-based education?

School is not a talent competition and learners need critical resources and infrastructure to succeed, writes DORON ISAACS.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, former president Nelson Mandela places enormous value and hope on education: ‘Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president.’

Many people know this famous quote, and when Mandela wrote it he knew that he was living proof of its truth. The statement that followed, however, is less well-known: ‘It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.’

This is certainly sound advice from a father to a son or daughter, especially during the difficult months before matric exams. Young people should work as hard as they can. With the 2012 matric exams about to begin, all across South Africa, grade 12 learners are challenged and even pleaded with in terms that resemble Mandela’s. Yet whether from Madiba or a concerned parent, this advice deserves close attention – because it is categorically ill-fitted to the reality that faces young people in South Africa.

Despite the impressive increase in the overall matric pass rate in 2011, many learners in poor schools still leave the national education system after twelve years without the tools or the grades to improve their own lives, or those of their families. In fact, most learners do not manage to complete these full twelve years. Of the 1 035 192 who started school in 2000, just 104 033 – only 10% – were able to pass mathematics in 2011. A fact often obscured by commendations over supposed improvements in national pass rates is that there was a sharp drop in the numbers of learners even writing maths exams, with a decline of 20 716 (17%) from 2010.

Academic achievement correlates closely with financial resources at schools. Government schools are classified by the education department into five quintiles, which are an indicator of relative wealth or poverty. Quintile 1 is comprised of the poorest schools, and quintile 5 the most affluent. Nearly half of all quintile 5 schools achieved matric pass rates of over 80%, while less than one-fifth of quintile 5 schools managed to do so.

Mandela’s vision of education is clearly that of a great leveller, a lever of equality and the levee against a tide of poverty and joblessness. But more often than not, education in South Africa today functions as a great engine of social division. As a system, it ensures that the daughter of a peasant becomes a call centre temp, the son of a mineworker becomes a street sweeper, and the child of farmworkers a domestic servant. In South Africa today, education is perpetuating inequality – not ending it.

In 2009, all grade 6 learners in the Western Cape took standard numeracy tests. The pass rate in integrated, former Model C schools was 60.2%. In African township schools it was 2.1%.

For most young people, what they have – brains, dreams and determination – cannot make up for what they were not given: text books, libraries, calculators, and well-prepared and well-paid teachers. The work done by Section27 in exposing the lack of textbooks in Limpopo schools is a stark illustration of this. The education department’s own figures show that only 8% of South African schools have stocked libraries, and that 3 600 function without electricity. Without books in their homes or quiet, well-lit places to study, many learners depend on these vital institutional resources. As documents in papers that Equal Education – a movement of learners, parents, teachers and community members campaigning for quality and equality in the South African education system – has prepared for an upcoming court case against Minister Angie Motshekga, over 2 400 schools do not have running water.

School is not a talent competition in which learners are judged on self-taught brilliance and aptitude. It is a marathon in which everyone runs the same course and, ultimately, a gifted  athlete who is denied running shoes, coaching, a route map and hydration is often beaten  by an average runner in soft Nikes, with a GPS and sipping Powerade.

The members of Equal Education know this well. Campaigning for libraries, textbooks and minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure are among the organisation’s priorities this year, alongside the concurrent values of arriving at school on time and  working hard.

On 20 November Equal Education’s two-year campaign for school infrastructure standards will reach the Bhisho High Court. In exhaustive papers we have demonstrated the crushing weight of poor facilities, the pervasive extent of such problems,and the persistent and unforgivable failure by Minister Motshekga to take corrective action. It is within the Minister’s power to prescribe binding targets for provinces – a move that is not opposed by provinces themselves – yet she defers, dithers and dissimulates.

It is often easy and convenient to see the present as unchanged from the past, but this is wrong – South Africa has a constitution that protects our rights to organise, and to change the material conditions under which we study and live. We also have a government committed to non-discrimination, even if those with wealth or governmental power need to be reminded of the extent of disadvantage still experienced by many.

While inequality remains a critical challenge, middle-class black learners are excelling academically in private and former Model C schools. Those who can afford high fees at school and university buy a real chance at making a success of life. As for the rest – they must be sublimely talented and lucky to escape unemployment, or grindingly monotonous work. After all, Mandela himself was raised by the Thembu Paramount Chief, who could afford to educate him.

Many of South Africa’s educational problems of the past decade have been rightly linked to outcomes-based education (OBE), but as we move beyond OBE we are faced with an even bigger problem: incomes-based education.

Conservatives argue that resources have little to do with outcomes, but ample evidence from national and multi-country studies over the past decade demonstrates that a wide range of resources, particularly textbooks and libraries, are indispensible for academic success. Most vital of all are skilled teachers – a diminishing resource that requires large investments by the state to revive and replenish.

The work of Equal Education has only just begun to address some of these enormous challenges.

Doron Isaacs is deputy general secretary of Equal Education, and recently spoke at an IJR conference on ‘Economic Justice for the Next Generation’. You can follow him on Twitter on @doronisaacs, or donate to Equal Education at

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