Young people ought to be our national obsession – Mmusi Maimane

DA leader says it is within the walls of our schools that our country’s future is built

Creating opportunity for young people ought to be our national obsession

17 January 2018

Today, as the 2018 academic year begins, I would like to wish every single learner across the country the very best for the year ahead – a year of personal growth and success. I am today joined by Western Cape Minister of Education, Debbie Schafer, who together with her team is working hard each day to improve the quality and delivery of education to young people across the province.

Whenever I have the privilege of visiting schools and places of learning I am reminded of the words of P.J. Kurien, the Deputy Chairman of India’s Parliament, who once said, “A nation is not made through laws in Parliament, but in classrooms in schools across the country”. What is true for the nation of India is absolutely true for South Africa. It is within the walls of our schools that our country’s future is built.

Last year over 12 million young South Africans – from Grade R to Matric - formed part of our education system. Their families and loved ones placed their trust in that very system to equip and educate their children. We must therefore always be asking ourselves what more can be done to create opportunity for these young South Africans, so that when they leave school they are equipped to enter the economy, find meaningful work, and add real value to the future South Africa we aim to build.

As a young black South African, it was the opportunity to receive an decent education that shaped my life and brought me to where I find myself today. That is why under my leadership, the Democratic Alliance (DA) will first and foremost be about creating opportunity for young people to get ahead and create a bright future for themselves, their loved ones, and our beautiful country.

In fact, as a country, we should be obsessed with developing and educating our young people, and creating opportunities for them. This should get us out of bed every morning. Because their success is our success.

However, young people cannot get ahead if the very system tasked with advancing their best interests stubbornly refuses to address the structural problems holding our young people back. We see this in the dropout figures in the senior years of high school, which is exacerbated by the practice of “culling” – whereby learners in Grade 10 and 11 are purposefully held back in order to manipulate the Matric pass rate.

For instance, if the Matric pass rate is calculated by looking at the Grade 10 class of 2015 who then passed their final school exams in 2017, the pass rate drops to 37.3%. This means that over 62.7% of Grade 10s in 2015 did not pass Matric in 2017 – either dropping out or become “stuck in the system”.

We need to rectify this immediately, and I would like to congratulate the Western Cape Education Department, which under Minister Schafer’s leadership is doing better than any other province in terms of learner retention.

It is not only the senior grades that are effected by structural failures. Last month, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which measures literacy rates of Grade 4 learners, revealed that in South African, 78% of learners in Grade 4 are not able to read with meaning in any language. This is a massive systemic failure that is ignored year after year.

And when it comes to the conduct and quality of our educators, young people are being sold short. A total of 5 139 teachers have been identified by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) as being underqualified for their posts. There is also a serious problem with teacher absenteeism, including strike action. Sadly, this disproportional affects poor, black South Africans. This is a systematic failure by the DBE and one which the department refuses to adequately address.

We will never achieve the broad justice, equality and prosperity we seek while the vast majority of our schools – those serving poor black children – are not able to give children a quality education. This simply reinforces patterns of poverty, and forces young people into a world of unemployment and hopelessness. The inescapable fact is, children from low-income households – almost all of them black – receive a generally lower quality of instruction and school leadership. This unfairness must end.

Yet, fixing our education system is not a mammoth task.

In fact, where we are in government, we are getting to work fixing public education where possible – despite not being in national government. That is why, since the DA took over in the Western Cape in 2009, the Matric pass rate in the province’s poorest schools increased from 57% to over 70%. And this is done without the regressive practice of “culling”.

At national government level, we would do the following to radically improve our education system:

- Scrap the “School Capture Bill”, which seeks to reduce the role of community driven school governing bodies (SGBs) in favour of greater state control of schools;

- Introduce specialist Teacher Training Colleges that can ensure a pipeline of well-trained teachers who are properly trained, and furthermore retrain and upskill current teachers where necessary;

- Establish an independent inspectorate, mandated and empowered to inspect schools and evaluate the quality of teaching, leadership, management and governance;

- Stand up to Teachers’ unions – such as SADTU – to ensure that teachers are held accountable by schools and their governing bodies, not politically aligned trade unions; and

- Declare principals, deputy principals and other crucial staff members an essential service and placing reasonable limits on their right strike.

If we get these basics right, we will have an education system that empowers young people – where teachers show up to work everyday and textbooks are delivered. This will be go far to ensure that every young person leaving school has options and opportunities to further their education and training.

Quality education, at all levels, remains one of the most powerful tools for unlocking opportunities and removing the unjust chains of poverty and inequality. I remain committed to building a South Africa where our children are given a quality education, and where no young person is left behind and shut out of the economy.

Issued by Mmusi MaimaneLeader of the Democratic Alliance, 17 January 2018