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Destroying Seeds Of Our Future by Mamphela Ramphele

5 May 2011

Mamphela Ramphele May 5th Sunday Times

Successful societies focus on ensuring that future generations perform better than past and present ones. The crisis of underperformance of our education and training system lies at the heart of the growth of inequality, continuing poverty and dependence on welfare transfers.

We have descended into an unsustainable situation, with 15 million welfare grant recipients supported by six million taxpayers. The majority of these welfare transfers are child grants extended to those under the age of 18. Child grants amount to R35.6-billion – 16% of the social protection budget allocation, in 2011, of R146.9-billion.

Some analysts are warning that our society is being hit by a teenage pregnancy tsunami. The Times reported recently that, in Gauteng alone, 5000 schoolgirls are preparing to give birth in 2011. For every age cohort of 1.5 million starting school each year, just over 500000 end up sitting for final year examinations. Less than 70% of these candidates get a high school diploma – of which only 20% are good enough to give the pupil access to higher education.

Our biggest failure as a society is tolerance of the destruction of opportunities for successive generations of children by an underperforming education and training system. We have very low expectations of what our children can achieve. Our policy choices in education and training in the post-apartheid period have been fatally flawed. Policy choices were driven by ideology rather than what would be in the best interests of South Africa. We refused to listen to experts who warned about our policy choices and their consequences. We did not even have the humility to take corrective measures when we realised we had made wrong choices.

The setting of standards of performance in our education system seems to be informed more by the fear of failure than differentiating between success and failure. We have created a culture of low effort and low standards of performance among young people. Could you ever have imagined that we would set 30% in three subjects and 40% in another three as enough for a high school diploma?

Can you imagine sustaining a business that consistently achieves only 30% to 40% of its performance targets? This is the biggest fraud we are committing against the future of our children. We are destroying the seeds of the future of our country.

These low standards become even more alarming when one measures them against curriculum demands that are themselves set low. For example, we seem to have made the assumption that our school children should not be stretched to learn to understand the language of mathematics and science. Experience worldwide points to the capacity of children to rise to the expectations set for them in an environment that encourages and rewards effort and innovation. Even in our own country, 600 of the total of more than 26000 public schools produce close to 100% pass rates and the highest mathematics and science outcomes. The key difference between the 600 and the rest of is the quality of leadership and teaching and high expectation of what they can achieve as teachers and pupils.

To add insult to injury, we decided in preparation for hosting the 2010 Fifa World Cup that building expensive stadiums was more important than focusing on improving the quality of education and health facilities. Despite shocking mud schools and children learning under trees or in schools without the most basic facilities such as libraries, laboratories and sports facilities, we happily spent billions on building new stadiums. Some of these stadiums are next to perfectly functional ones that could have just been upgraded at a fraction of the cost.

We now know from the investigation by the Competition Commission that collusion was involved in the allocation of tenders and pushing up construction costs. Many of these stadiums now stand as tragic white elephants.

The final straw was the decision by Umalusi, the national examination standard moderator, to adjust the final marks of the 2010 matric results upwards. It came as a surprise to all of us that, with so much time lost to the teaching and learning process, the matric pass rate increased from 61% in 2009 to 67% in 2010. Either “time on task” does not matter in terms of education outcomes or something else is at play here.

We should be more outraged by the marks attained by successive cohorts of high school graduates in key subjects over the past few years. Not once since 2008 has the national average in mathematics, physical science, accounting, life sciences and geography reached 40%!

The most important reason for this failure of accountability to taxpayers and citizens is the insurance policy the South African Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) has secured by being a member of the tripartite alliance together with the SACP and the ANC as the governing party. The desire by the ANC to secure its majority and stay in power seems to be much stronger than its commitment to ensure that the poorest have access to quality educational outcomes. The ANC’s capacity to enforce accountability is constrained by its fear of confronting Sadtu and risking losing the vast teacher support of close to 300000 voters. Teachers know this and the unprofessional ones act with impunity.

Solidarity with poor people need not generate and sustain dependency. Latin American countries have models of matching solidarity with poor people with enhancing poor people’s capabilities to be agents of their own development. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, a conditional cash transfer programme, creates incentives for recipients to enhance their capacity and capabilities towards more responsible citizenship. The state provides a grant that is payable monthly on condition that the recipient ensures that beneficiary children are well fed, immunised and at school. In addition, the care-givers are to utilise opportunities for skills training and access available entry jobs. Millions of poor people have been migrated from being welfare recipients to become productive citizens.

The success of these conditional grant models has been documented by independent evaluators. Its positive impact on reduction of hunger, ill-health and the school dropout rate as well as changes in attitudes, gender relationships and assertiveness in the home, work place and wider community are beyond doubt. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, has successfully adapted the programme to deal with inner-city poverty and unemployment.

South Africa has to take a stand against embedding mediocrity and low expectations in our education and training systems and in our public services. We need to raise the bar in terms of our expectation of superior performance by our children, fellow citizens and public servants.

We are a society preoccupied with celebrating past glory rather than focusing on investing in our future. We now have an opportunity to focus on promoting the skills development of the millions of young people roaming our streets and villages in frustration. The Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, has given us the resources to redeem ourselves and get every able-bodied young person into a training opportunity and set them up for success.

Securing our democracy has never been more urgent. We have the means to turn our challenges into opportunities and become a more inclusive, prosperous democracy where all citizens assume their rights and responsibilities.