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Nyar, Annsilla (2008) What lies ahead for our young learners?. Eye on Civil Society : -.

This is a sobering question to consider, as KwaZulu Natal learners return to school this week. Parents are digging deep into their pockets for school fees, books and uniforms. For those fortunate enough to afford such items, school shoes are being polished and lunchboxes and satchels dusted off. Both teachers and children are bracing themselves for the new round of exams, tests, lessons and homework. They carry a weight of expectations and hopes on their backs-the hopes for a sound future amidst a national climate of political turbulence and socio-economic uncertainty.

Will these hopes be realized? If the 2007 matric results are anything to go by, the new year has, instead, begun on a note of deep pessimism and discouragement. This gloomy prognosis for the future comes on the heels of rising inflation and interest rate hikes. While government has consistently lauded its own economic achievements, (eg. an economic boom, improvements in tax revenue collection, a record budget surplus), these so called benefits to the economy have failed to trickle down to the ordinary South African. Inflation and interest rate hikes has seen parents spending more on bonds, car installments and overdrafts and consequently slowing down household expenditures. The stresses are transferred onto children along with the burdens of expectation, contributing to the overall mood of chronic anxiety.

Young learners can hardly be inspired by the state of schooling in South Africa. 2007 has seen the country experience its poorest matric results yet, following the dismaying trend of a progressive decline in pass rates since the beginning of democracy. The 2006 pass rate was 66.5%. In 2007 it has dropped even lower to 65.2%. In all, more than 200 000 matriculants failed the core test of their 12 years of schooling-a damning indictment of the education system.

Figures from the National Department of Education department show that the endorsement rate (ie those passes which enable learners to pursue tertiary education) has decreased to 15,1%. Effectively, this means that the advantages and opportunities offered by university study are barred to thousands of young people. Well, that is, only if their parents would be able to raise the necessary funds to send their children to university. Higher grade maths and science passes are poor, boding ill for prospects of South Africa’s future scientific and technical workforce, and it ensures the continuation of our skills shortage in the fields of science and engineering. The pool of employable young people with the skills and training to compete in the national economy, is shrinking.

Thus the ranks of unemployed young people are growing and signals further increases in crime and marginalization for disenchanted youth.

Experts from the Wits Education Policy Unit, point out that this high stakes examination is not an effective indicator of the state of the education system and argue instead that the entire schooling system is flawed. Proper teaching and learning should happen throughout the entire schooling system and not just matric.

It is an unfortunate fact that, yes, the entire schooling system is flawed. Our schools are not conducive to learning. Research shows that our schools are breeding grounds for crime, violence and gender abuse-in short, a microcosm of the ills of society. Schools are under-resourced and ill-equipped, suffering a lack of skilled and motivated teachers and learning materials. The combination of demoralized teachers and disenchanted learners is a volatile mix.

The 2007 schooling year suffered serious disruptions such as with the public sector strike, the largest and most militant strike action democratic South Africa has experienced. Valuable classroom time was lost with the mass action campaign in support of a 12% salary increase for public sector workers. The plight of learners in the troubled township of Khutsong went largely unnoticed as the battle raged over the forced incorporation of the resource poor West Rand township from the wealthier Gauteng municipality to that of the North West. Learners who should have been in school instead spent almost three months at home or on the streets, throwing stones, burning buildings or clashing with police.

How much of the failure of the education system is systemic and how much of the blame can be laid at the doors of parents? That is to say, parents who fail to inculcate an appreciation of the values of reading in their homes, avoid involvement in their children’s education and those irresponsible enough to give their children the idea that they can succeed in life without an education behind them.

The truth is that life without education effectively condemns young people to life with one hand tied behind their backs. This is a battle which needs to be fought on all fronts and one which must involve the cooperation of all-both tiers of the education department, teachers, teachers unions, learners and parents. So if we imagine a brighter future for our learners returning to school this week, it should include the continued emphasis on the value of quality education. It is the placing of this premium on education which will enable our learners to become relevant to the economy and society in general.

But grim prognoses aside. We must also take time to celebrate our educational successes. As much as we bemoan the challenges of transforming the education system, we must also draw out our successes. The single-minded dedication of learners who commit to their studies against daunting odds, for example Krystal Theron from Springs who wrote her matric exam from her hospital after being brutally stabbed. Even a violent rape attack and subsequent HIV infection could not stop Jamie Paterson in Gauteng from sitting-and passing-her matric exam. The school children who wade through rivers full of crocodiles in order to get to school or who sit under trees for want of desks or chairs. The teachers who went above and beyond the call of duty in helping their pupils catch up on work they had missed during the strike action. The simple but beautiful fact that approximately 370 000 learners did sit and pass their matric exam, thereby improving the educational levels of the general population.

I want to wish all of our school going youth, a wonderful and productive year of learning and education.

Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the UKN-based Center for Civil Society.

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