Low standards must fall
The past days saw a formidable exercise in democracy and social action in SA with the success of the #FeesMustFall campaign. From a group of Wits students protesting against fee hikes, ordinary students of all backgrounds united in a grassroots movement that led to the closure of campuses, huge marches in numerous cities and ultimately a commitment from government to halt hikes for 2016. Now is the time for these successes to encourage even bigger action to address the low standards and weak education outcomes that affect the poorest and most disenfranchised in SA and not just the elite. Now is the time for a better education for all. Now is the time that low standards must fall.
The #FeesMustFall campaign is the most successful social-media driven mass action campaign that SA has ever seen and is comparable to the mass action campaigns we saw in the 1980s and 1990s in the days before cell phones. It caught most people by surprise, not least political movements and government. It did not appear to be orchestrated, but seemed to grow from the frustration of students and resonated country-wide. It united students of all backgrounds, with even those that can afford fee increases, marching in solidarity with those that cannot. As with all mass action campaigns, there were disruptive elements and there was police over-reaction. However, in general our students need to be commended for a largely peaceful exercise, driven by real concerns and resulting in constructive action. Well done.
It is now time to take the momentum created by the #FeesMustFall campaign and direct it to wider causes, including low education standards and weak outcomes. You, the tertiary students of SA are fortunate. You have made it through the SA basic education system. Despite the meaningful challenges you faced with poor facilities, teacher absenteeism, shortages in learning materials and low standards, you made it into higher learning facilities. You are survivors, you are winners. But you are also in the minority.
If you passed matric last year and are currently enrolled in a university you are one of only 12% of your 2003 grade 1 class that made it. Another 20% of your 2003 grade 1 class managed to pass matric last year, but the rest (68%), never made it that far. Even more shocking, if you managed to get more than 40% for maths in your matric exam last year, you are one of only 6.5%. The rest of your 2003 grade 1 class either got less than 40% (4.4% of them) or did not take maths in matric (89%). If you are one of these people, well done! You are one of the advantaged, but what about the masses of disadvantaged people out there?
There are many reasons why you had to face huge challenges during your school years and why the majority of South African pupils face huge challenges and will not make it to the finishing line. Money does not appear to be the main driver. In our current budget, more than R200bn has been set aside for education, which makes this the highest single expenditure item. The 5% of gross domestic product (GDP, a measure of economic activity) that we spend on education is in line with what the USA, the UK and other developed countries spend and ahead of what most developing countries spend.
So what are the main drivers? The low standards that we set for ourselves are likely the main reason for our underperformance. How can we excel as a country if we are told that all we need to aim for is 30% and 40%? How would you respond if your cell phone network only worked 30% to 40% of the time? What if buses, trains and taxis only ran on time 30% to 40% of the time? You may have struggled to co-ordinate the #FeesMustFall marches if that was the case. We must aim higher if we want to achieve success. You did just that when you marched last week, you aimed higher and you succeeded!
Another main driver for our poor performance is dysfunctional schools. Many of you would have seen this first hand. Schools that start late and end early, teachers that are absent, pupils that skip classes, the lack of proper teaching materials (books, etc.), poor facilities, teachers that do not cover the course work properly and teachers that aim to get you to 30% or 40% instead of getting you as close as possible to 100%.
Most of these dysfunctional schools are in the poorest areas of SA, where students most need the opportunity to improve their situation. However, not all schools in these poor areas suffer the same fate. Many schools, facing the same financial constraints are able to excel and produce excellent results. Often the difference comes in the form of an excellent principal who makes sure that school starts on time, that teachers are motivated to teach effectively and encourage their students to perform above minimum requirements, that facilities are acceptable (even if the school is short of money, there are ways to involve the community to improve facilities), that students are respectful and do not disrupt classes, etc.
There are shining examples in SA of how principals can make a difference such as the Matthew Goniwe Memorial High School and Masiyele Secondary School in the Western Cape, Bhukulani Secondary School in Gauteng, Thengwe and Mbilwi Secondary Schools in Limpopo, Menzi and Velabahleke High in KZN and many others!
You can also make a difference. You have proven it this last week. You took an issue that is close to your heart, you organised, you united, you rose up, you marched, you made your voices heard and you got results. You made a difference. Please, can you now take this energy and help this country to make a difference to our basic education system. Make a difference for your little brothers and sisters who are still coming through a dysfunctional system, make a difference for the kids in your neighbourhood, make a difference for your children one day. Make a difference to this country that we love.
Demand higher education standards from government. Demand that #LowStandardsMustFall. Get involved in schools in your communities. Go and speak to pupils and educators and let your example be a shining light. Become a maths tutor, become a soccer coach. Put pressure on underperforming schools. Do not let teachers get away with absenteeism and poor teaching methods. Help us to stop the cycle of mediocrity today. You have shown that you are not mediocre, you have shown us the power of the youth, you have shown us that activism is not just a part of our past, but a way to ensure a brighter future.
I am proud SA and I am hopeful. The energy of our youth is an inspiration.
Are you inspired by the #FeesMustFall campaign? What do you think the next step should be? Would you like to see the focus shift to better education for all? Do you think #LowStandardsMustFall? I would love to hear your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!
#FeesMustFall #LowStandardsMustFall #SpeakingOutSA