Whenever you visit schools overseas, it is hard not to look at the experience through your own cultural and professional lens. When I was in South Africa it would have been easy to suggest strategies and ideas for improvement but you can’t do this without looking at the country’s history including its political context.
The biggest problem in South African education is not class sizes or computers but language. It is staggering to think that under a post-apartheid constitution there are 11 official languages. Black South African students coming into the system are entitled for the first four years to be educated in their vernacular. They then transfer into a second language and onto senior grades. If they are lucky they go on to matriculation but in order to matriculate they must sit the exams in English.
The frustration for many teachers and principals I spoke with is two-fold. The first is the obvious language disadvantage. One principal told me that you rarely hear English spoken in Soweto’s primary schools. These students are not starting from a level playing field so the system actually works against them. The second is the sheer complexity of training and hiring teachers in the 11 official languages!
Every student I spoke no matter whether they were black or white, rich or poor, all want the opportunity to be active participants in their society. They want to play a part in shaping South Africa’s future. Education as Mandela said is a great weapon for change and it is the thing that gives these students hope. I saw the same aspirations in the UK as I have in my own diocese. Aspiration and opportunity is a powerful mix.
The students at Pholosho Secondary School told me that “without teachers they are nothing – their education relies on them.” It reminds us of the enormous responsibility we carry.
Listening to the students and talking to my educator colleagues reminded me that there is more that connects us than divides.
One of the most memorable events was the last day of our CSCLeaders conference. We were joined by three black South Africans. One was a social activist, the other a banker and the third was an entrepreneur. All in their twenties and from diverse social backgrounds. The told us they have little memory of apartheid so they don’t share their parents’ memories or this part of their country’s history. They were more interested in South Africa’s future – because that is what they could change and contribute to.
This experience in South Africa reminded me of how lucky we are here and how our challenges pale in comparison.