The growing hunger for better schooling is a key social trend - Business Day

14 May 2018 - With characteristic flair, historian Bill Nasson responded some years ago to a request for a pithy quote for a poster on the history sessions at the Franschhoek Literary Festival with the winning one-liner: irony is the enema of history.

Michael Morris

With characteristic flair, historian Bill Nasson responded some years ago to a request for a pithy quote for a poster on the history sessions at the Franschhoek Literary Festival with the winning one-liner: irony is the enema of history.

And, heaven knows, much in historical sense making is hard to stomach and begs for purgative relief. The same is often true of reading the immediately unfolding past — the present, by another name — where telling the good from the garbage requires paying careful attention to the data, seeming contradictions and evidence of perhaps inconceivable trends in the making.

Not accidentally, somehow, it was Nasson who used his inaugural lecture at the University of Stellenbosch in 2010 to test assumptions about SA’s 20th century "abnormality", cautioning his audience to acknowledge that "familiar apartheid truths" were accompanied by others that remained true "even if they are unfamiliar".

Apartheid with its "devastating long-term consequences" was, of course, the "true continental abnormality", yet SA was not "completely without … the usual rhythms of modern history".

South Africans are not having to be goaded into classroom and lecture hall; they know what education offers. Tragically, they are getting so much less than they expect or deserve

Demography and population history revealed, for instance, that the period from 1880 to 2000 was one of almost continuously rising life expectancy, bar the 1918 flu epidemic and the later AIDS attrition, and that this century and a bit was one in which "mortality has declined, fertility has dropped and households have become smaller. Urbanisation has increased, the proportion of agricultural work in total employment has declined, and the average level of education of the adult population has been rising. In any contemporary historical perspective, this is the standard portrayal of trends in all industrial societies …"

Nasson’s lecture suggests there are interesting questions to be asked about the defiance of ideology by means other than conventional bombs-and-barricades insurrection.

Defiance might be too demonstrative a word for the quiet force accumulated in the millions of choices individuals make, but, more often than perhaps is appreciated, they can and do work against the wishes of the powerful and the edicts intended to keep subjects at heel.

Earlier in May, the Centre for Risk Analysis published a report on South African schooling which conveys at once the scale of failure in education and the scale of popular yearning to reach the gateway of knowledge and skills. The failures are harrowing. 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 the early grades, and just 28% of people 20 and older have completed high school.

A good maths pass is a key determinant of access to the middle class, but only 6.9% of matric candidates will pass maths with a grade of 70% to 100% — less than in 2008. In the poorest quintile of schools, less than 1/100 matric candidates will receive a maths distinction, and even in the richest quintile that figure is just 9.7%.

There are positives: pre-school enrolment is up 270.4% since 2000; the proportion of people 20 and older with no schooling has fallen from 13% in 1995 to 4.8% in 2016, and university enrolment is up 289.5% since 1985 and more than 100% since 1995.

South Africans are not having to be goaded into classroom and lecture hall; they know what education offers. Tragically, they are getting so much less than they expect or deserve.

But a genuine glimmer of hope is contained in a single figure, pointing to what the researchers believe is a "key social trend"; the differential between public and independent school enrolment. Independent schools account for just under 5% of enrolment — 590,352 pupils against public schooling’s 12,342,213 — but it has risen by 130.4% since 2000 against a 6% increase in public school enrolment, with the highest rises recorded in the Eastern Cape (641.6%) and Limpopo (285.8%).

Even as policy continues so damagingly to emphasise bureaucratic control over parental influence and choice, the desire for better education across SA’s long-suffering households is a gathering force for change.

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

 

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