Private schools: Cosatu's attack works against finding real solutions
The trouble with ideologues is that they become blind to solutions. Addressing the Young Communist League (YCL) Congress in Mafikeng on 10 December, Secretary-General Zwelinzima Vavi of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) rightly points to the failure of our education system in the townships. His solution: shut down the private schools.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Vavi cares deeply about the working people of South Africa. In a moving speech at the 25th anniversary celebrations of COSATU he honoured the millions of South Africans who toil day in and day out without much improvement in their lives. I share with him the pain of watching so many children from poor backgrounds trapped by lack of opportunity because of poor education.
It is however bizarre to argue that the solution is to shut down private schools. This is, of course, not the first time Mr. Vavi makes a case against private schools. In fact, it is a central plank of COSATU's social policy to shut down private schools. At the 10 December YCL Congress he became a class evangelist as no one can, asking the many young communists steeped in the dialectic to take further the socialist revolution by abolishing private schools because they are ‘bastions of class inequality.'
Lets be practical Mr. Vavi. If a school - private or public - works by educating our young people properly, then learn why and extend the essential items of success to other schools. If a school works then make it more accessible to as many young people as educationally possible. In other words, build success to greater heights by extending quality.
Now it must be said that not all private schools are good schools. It is also true among those who know schooling well that not all former Model C public schools are good schools. It is also true that not all townships schools are bad schools. As Mr. Vavi rightly points out though, 70% of matriculation exam passes are accounted for by just 11% of schools.
Class and the socio-economic status of neighbourhoods matter, but they are not central to good education. The question to ask is what is demonstrably a good school? In my experience it involves putting an excellent teacher in a functional classroom at a well-led school, having a robust curriculum and appropriate technology. Teaching excellence and school leadership are the most critical elements of success.
So, our task is to scale up functional schools to reach as many young learners as possible. We have a lot to learn from India in this regard. They introduced the concept of low-fee private schools, where government there gives poor parents who qualify a voucher which they redeem at any school of their choice and, judging from the figures, many go for private schools.
Rather than abolishing private schools, subsidise them by giving vouchers to parents who make the choice. It is revolutionary socialist arrogance to choose for parents, whether they are workers, capitalists or the unemployed. This is the essential message of the Democratic Alliance (DA): we should all work hard to create opportunities and leave the choice to citizens. That is real empowerment.
Statement issued by Wilmot James MP, Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Basic Education, December 12 2010
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