Nub of the problem is not letting people make own decisions - Business Day

28 May 2018 - One of the most damaging assumptions common to — though never admitted by — much of the intelligentsia is that poor people are incapable of making decisions for themselves.

 

Michael Morris

One of the most damaging assumptions common to — though never admitted by — much of the intelligentsia is that poor people are incapable of making decisions for themselves.

This is no better illustrated than by the instinctive approval of the idea that the state is for the poor, the private sector for the rich, and the matching enthusiasm for retaining this inhibiting limit on the opportunities available to those who have less money.

It may be well meaning — charitable, perhaps, rather than miserly — but that doesn’t make it any less misguided for being not only paternalistic but depriving, almost to the extent of preserving a status quo in which the poor are expected to know their place.

And why should they? The penalties of being compelled to depend on a too-often-misnamed public service are most keenly felt by the poor in the one domain in which they have every reason to pin their hopes of escaping poverty: education.

When it works, a successful 12-year school experience produces the good matric mark that is a ticket to university and, later, access to the middle-class world of career, advancement, choice and fulfilment. This is a pressing concern to everyone, but especially to the poor.

The trouble is that while SA boasts some very good schools. both public and independent, for the vast majority of the country’s 13-million schoolchildren — most of them poor and black — the advantages of the best schools are a pipedream

Consider that just over half (52%) of young people between 15 and 24 are unemployed, and this at a time when the structure of the economy is shifting steadily in favour of high-skills sectors. This is an environment in which the labour force absorption rate (measuring employed people as a share of the working-age population) falls from 75.6% for university graduates to 50.3% for those with matric, sliding away to a dismal 34% for those with anything less.

A good education, then, is the one critical step towards the door of redemption from poverty. The trouble is that while SA boasts some very good schools. both public and independent, for the vast majority of the country’s 13-million schoolchildren — most of them poor and black — the advantages of the best schools are a pipedream.

The data are stark. Ours is a school system in which just under half of children who enrol in grade 1 will make it to grade 12; roughly 20% of grade 9, 10, and 11 pupils are repeaters, suggesting they have been poorly prepared in their early grades. And only 6.9% of matric candidates will pass maths with more than 70%, a smaller proportion than in 2008.

As a consequence of these and other deficiencies, the higher education participation rate for black people is just 15.6%. Given that 88% of SA’s almost 24,000 public schools are in communities classified by the government as being too poor to be allowed to charge fees, it looks rather as if the problem is money.

But money isn’t the problem. The real problem is resistance to letting ordinary people make their own decisions. This profoundly counterproductive thinking is codified in policy that increasingly checks rather than encourages the solution: giving choices to parents. They are the stakeholders who have the most to gain from success in education and whose increased involvement in schools would register as perhaps the most decisive factor in SA’s socioeconomic trajectory.

This is tellingly illustrated by the successes — in spite of poverty and legislative impediments — of stellar examples among no-fee public schools in poor communities. Our research shows over and again that the common factor in every school, even the poorest, that succeeds in giving children the high-quality education that equips them for continuing achievement is strong teaching-focused leadership underpinned by parental and community, not bureaucratic, involvement.

Boosting this is the objective of the Institute of Race Relations’s education charter, launched last week. The state of our schooling cannot be confined to a lofty ideological dispute in which we might be content, whether we win or lose, with the nourishment merely of engaging with ideas.

The data demonstrate that government education spend of roughly R200bn a year is going towards replicating, not reversing, patterns of unemployment, poverty and inequality. That’s the antithesis of what the country can afford or what parents desperately want. It is time to let them choose.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

 

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