South Africa has done all kinds of good in trying to turn itself around since the end of apartheid. New investment, new homes, new laws, and a new middle class are just some of its successes. But if a country wants to achieve sustainable development–economic, social, or human–it must see improvements in education.
This is the first in a series of posts here at gautango in which I will try and answer the following important question: What are the challenges facing South African education and are they being met in the schools?
In one indisputable sense, education for black Africans (87% of the population of SA) has improved since 1994. Beginning in 1953, when the apartheid government passed the Bantu Education Act, South African schools were segregated by race. The black schools were systematically under-funded, under-resourced, and geared toward turning out students who could be “carriers of water and hewers of wood.” The end of that era was a boon for all learners.
Yet increased funding and opening the door for black Africans to participate in the dialogue around education has not solved many critical educational problems. In one very public example, a series of systemic studies funded by the Department of Education (see here) that looked into what was really going on inside of South African classrooms scandalized the nation. Crunching vast amounts of data collected during each of the three phases of education, these studies revealed that despite spending 6% of the GDP on education (the highest amount of any government spending category), learners are failing in droves.
So what exactly is the problem?
Issue number one in South African education is language. The ability to read English, which is South Africa’s primary language of education and trade, is crucial for success at school (and beyond). Every single school subject employs a learner’s ability to read. Yet in my experience working at two private schools in Soweto (learners pay roughly $200 per annum to attend) I have discovered that learners are not being prepared to succeed in reading. The average Grade 2 learner cannot name the letters or their sounds, and most of the Grade 3 learners cannot read English at a Grade 1 level.
There are 11 official languages in this country: nine African languages, English, and Afrikaans. Not a single one of the students I work with speaks English as their home language. Obviously, this creates a problem. Learners’ first year of school is supposed to be taught in their home language, but in a place like Soweto, where members of every regional ethnic and linguistic group can be found, it is virtually impossible to achieve this tricky task. Most of the township schools cannot afford readers for the children, let alone the salaries of teachers who could specialize in each of the various tongues.
Surely, the effect of this language barrier is to put non-English-speaking learners at a huge disadvantage, but perhaps more importantly, it devalues the importance of reading and literacy in the learners’ early years. The DOE study supports this first point. It concludes that learners who are instructed in the same language that they use at home scored on average 37% better on standardized tests than those who are instructed in a second or third language. This is a huge margin.
The second point, that the language barrier actually devalues the importance of reading and literacy in the learners’ early years, is less objectively obvious. Because the learners are taught in home language during their first year, and it is expected that they will be taught in English the following years, little progress is made in learning how to read in their home language. Why spend the time teaching a child to read isiZulu when he will be asked to read English in a matter of months? There are a number of other factors that add to the difficulty of creating a solid literacy foundation in Grade 1, including limited written materials or literacy curriculum in the African languages, low expectations surrounding home language literacy, and Grade 1 classes that are in fact quite linguistically mixed.
When a learner reaches Grade 2 unable to name letters or sounds in any language it becomes a race against time. Because learning to read is difficult for a child, reading habits form very early. If a child does not expect reading to be a part of his or her schooling in the early years, it is difficult to change that expectation. Also, children’s books are written to the level of life experience of their target audience. An alphabet book, written for the attention span and interests of a 5 year old, is not going to compel a Grade 3 learner. Programs in adult literacy often run into this same problem.
An additional but equally important element of the language barrier is that children are learning to speak English at the same time they are learning to read. If you have ever tried learning a foreign language, you know how hard it is to make sense of new words. Imagine trying to make sense of sounds and words at the same time. A learner could read the word “mug,” sounding out the /m/ /u/ /g/, without any idea what the word actually means. The moment when reading a word “clicks” and the sounds transform into something the learner already understands is not so easily come by in this situation.
All of these problems are palpable in the classrooms where I’m working and they make the teachers’ job (themselves not native English-speakers) incredibly difficult. Their solution? Consciously or not, teachers have devalued the importance of reading and literacy in the curriculum. Each class spends about 2 hours per week on literacy, does virtually no homework in the subject, is unfamiliar with the inside of the library (though there’s not much to see there anyway), and rarely reads anything with the children or encourages them to do so either. On balance, a more successful school that I visited spends at least an hour per day doing reading and literacy work, assigns homework each night, visits the library weekly, and reads together often.
There are other problems with education in South Africa, but the language barrier is absolutely critical to understanding why so many students are failing in school. While it is economically and logistically impossible to ensure that every learner is taught in his home language, it is possible to do a better job of prioritizing reading in the early years than schools are currently doing. This would make a huge impact on learners as they proceed to higher and higher levels of expectation.