I spent Thursday morning at Ekuthuleni Primary School in Diepkloof, Soweto, hosted by Itumuleng Kgaboesele of @SphereHoldings and @CitizenLeaderLab, an NGO that runs the Partners for Possibility as part of the Execs Back To School.
We met the principal, some teachers, lots of kids.
We asked two children what they wished for their schools.
Princess, 12 years old, said she wished they had a library so that scholars can read, and study and do research.
Silindile, 8 years old, said she wished the school gave the children food to take home.
Those answers sum up the education system: It’s complicated.
Most of us know some of the dire statistics of South Africa’s school system, for example: 81% of 10 year olds cannot read for meaning.
That’s what is drummed into our heads by the media, and by looking around.
But, in the words of Komala Pillay, “It’s not as depressing as it looks.”
Physically visiting a school teaches some lessons.
I learnt that the quality of the teaching is less important than the passion of the teacher. And the teachers I met were enormously passionate. I guess you don’t become a teacher unless you have a calling to help children find their path in life.
I learnt that a principal is the difference between a school with a 99% matric pass rate vs the national average of 80%. That’s what the Partners for Possibility programme focuses on. They pair principals with executives, helping them become better leaders, managers and administrators, and plugging them into support networks outside their community.
I learnt that it’s easy to judge our education system from the outside, it’s easy to spout simple answers like “We need more teachers” or “We need better schools”, but when you start looking inside the kimono, the solutions are not so simple.
You need toilets, and skills, and paper, and textbooks, and principals, and teachers, and food for children to eat.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is that the Department of Basic Education must implement a one-size-fits-all curriculum. But, as any parent or teacher knows, every child is different.
There are lots of different smarties in the smartie box.
Not everyone needs to do geometry. Not everyone thrives in a group. Not everyone raises their hand. Not everyone likes speaking. Not everyone likes reading.
But we try put everyone through the same sausage factory.
And that sausage factory is ruled by CAPS, our national curriculum. Even in the most competent hands, it’s quite daunting to create a curriculum that suits every single child in a country as diverse as ours.
The gist is this: We have great people, but the curriculum is holding back our children.
Good intentions, poor outcomes.
Plenty of dreams, no tools to achieve those dreams.
The question all of us South Africans regularly ask ourselves is, “Do I believe that SA has a bright future?”
The answer is mostly, “Only if we fix our education system.” If we can give the tools to young South Africans to get jobs, start businesses, and teach other people, we can have a bright future.
In other words, SA’s future depends on its ability to educate future generations.
To me, personally, the answer cannot depend on the government. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a French official in Paris or a South African bureaucrat in Pretoria, centralized authority cannot create a curriculum that suits all the smarties in the smartie box.
Fortunately, in South Africa, we’ve learnt to not rely on the government. The government is not going to save us.
We have to save ourselves.
The good news is we don’t need to stress about the teachers. We don’t have to replace all our teachers, or teach all our teachers. We have (mostly) great teachers!
Men and women who truly care for children and are passionate for helping them.
We just need a tailored curriculum for each child so that he or she can learn what they want to learn and find a path to a future career they want to follow and then make money to support their family and make sure their daughters aren’t hungry.
There is already a global template for that curriculum.
When 8 year old Silindile said her wish was for food to take home, I was speechless. There is no easy answer to that. And it was a poignant reminder that many South Africans are way down Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.
But when 12 year old Princess said her wish was for a library, I asked her a question:
“Princess, if you could choose between free internet at school or a library, which one would you choose?”
“But what about devices? Do all these young children have smart devices?”
“Yes! Everyone has a device! Even Silindile!”
Silindile nodded emphatically.
Billions of people already use the internet to learn what they want to learn, and discover what they didn’t know they wanted to learn, and pursue careers that they have an aptitude for, and make a living.
We don’t have to abandon CAPS. Leave CAPS as it is. It’s easy, it’s boring. It leads to an official matric certificate. That’s cool.
Just bring the internet to schools. To children.
Give kids the internet and they’ll learn to read for meaning and write and do math and do carpentry and understand rocket science. If that’s what they want to do.
The internet brings the tools that the dreams are yearning for.
Those tools are what will educate our youngsters.
And that’s what will save South Africa.
So the question is: When will our kids have internet at school?
The government has been promising school internet for over a decade. No delivery.
The government will not save us. Fortunately, the private sector knows that, and companies like Telkom and Vodacom pour lots of money into school connectivity.
Whilst NGO’s like Citizen Leader Lab are pairing business executives with school principals, sharing lessons and skills and networks, helping principals become better leaders and helping children get a chance in life, the civic and private sectors are trying to bring the internet to schools.
Project Isizwe is an NGO that is focused 100% on bringing internet to schools, pairing financial contributions from big businesses like Glencore and Investec with schools that need internet.
It’s happening! Our education system is coming right.
Which is why this piece is titled: It’s ok it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok. Nightbirde’s song always makes me shed a tear.
Not because it’s sad.
But because she knew that everything was going to be ok.