Feature Article: Captive students in captive schooling systems

Schooling is the captive of governments, due to the existence of the laws that allow them to dictate the terms of all tuition, including that supplied by private schools. As compulsory schooling laws cannot be applied without a legal definition of “schooling” or what it means to be “schooled”, the application of compulsion has mired the learning experiences of young people in a nightmare of bureaucracy that is the antithesis of enlightenment. 

No single definition of schooling will hold up to a challenge in the courts. Governments everywhere, therefore, have turned to prescribing compulsory curricula that must be followed in all schools to comply with the law. Not satisfied with merely stipulating what subjects should be taught, government officials prescribe the content in minute detail, treating teachers as child-minders whose function it is to shove the prescribed material down the throats of students and attempt to ensure that they can regurgitate it at examination time.

In many cases, even the teaching methods are prescribed, leaving teachers with little latitude to apply the knowledge and skills they acquired in qualifying to do the job. The so-called outcomes-based method that was inflicted on South African schools caused untold harm and must have made life very difficult for teachers who totally disagreed with it.

Educational psychologist, Dr Bonnie Macmillan, in her book Why School children Can’t Read, describes the tragic results for England’s children of having the whole-word teaching method imposed on their teachers. The result was that 25 per cent of 7-year-olds were failing to read after two years of primary school; a serious state of affairs because illiteracy at that age often translates into serious problems later on. An important factor behind poor examination results at age 16 was found to be the inability to read at age 7.

Dr Macmillan found that reading failure correlated significantly with aggression in delinquent adolescent boys. Reading disability at age 9 was predictive of juvenile delinquency at age 15. A large government survey in the United States found that 85 per cent of minors entering the juvenile justice system could not read, while a British survey in 16 prisons found that 52 per cent of inmates could only read at the level of a 9-year-old or below.

Not being able to read hampers a young person’s ability to access all other aspects of education and to manage life in general. It leads to truancy and feelings of inadequacy, and eventually to considerably reduced employment and earnings prospects.

Having played a small supportive role in saving one boy from growing up illiterate, I have first-hand reports of the change that reading capability has brought about in his life. The boy’s mother was terribly worried that he was becoming delinquent. He was part of a junior gang, played truant, was learning bad habits, and had become uncontrollable. The government school he attended had failed to teach him to read. A private church-supported school took him in, as they said, “just in time”. He learned to read, has a talent for maths, and is doing well at school. This boy is no longer a gang member, does not play truant, is respectful to his mother, and his demeanour has changed from sullen and hopeless to cheerful, confident and optimistic.

How many young people in this country are doomed to remain illiterate throughout their youth and most probably their whole adulthood? What are their future prospects? How many are likely to follow the trends in the US and the UK and drift into crime only to end up in a prison cell? Do we even know how many inmates of SA’s prisons are illiterate or reading-deficient?

In order to save schoolchildren, we first have to save teachers from the tedium imposed on them and create circumstances in which they can inspire young people and make learning an exciting and absorbing experience. The current command and control system cannot be rescued; it has to change fundamentally, in fact, it has to be scrapped.

A good start would be to give each school a high level of independence, with the surrounding community playing a supportive role. Without the power to expel disruptive students, dismiss incompetent teachers (subject to the necessary impartial hearings) and appoint good teachers, schools cannot function efficiently. The most effective change would be to transfer management of each school to an independent entity that takes full responsibility for its proper functioning, and which receives a per pupil allocation from the education budget. While having greater freedom in their teaching is essential, teachers should also carry more responsibility for ensuring the success of their students.

Independence of schools would be a first tentative step towards the far-reaching changes that are necessary to totally transform the education of young people. Government-dominated schooling is collapsing because of its inherent deficiencies. No amount of tinkering will correct the situation. Schooling, just like any other service, has to cater for the real needs of its customers, and the only way to find out what the customers want is through their buying patterns. In time, which will hopefully not be too long, control over the education of young people will be returned to the family. World-wide, families are taking over responsibility for their children’s education, many parents home- schooling their children or taking great care in choosing which school will educate their children.

Under current circumstances, parents and their children should be allowed to choose the school the child wishes to attend, and the money for the cost of the schooling should follow the child. New schools would then spring up that cater for the real educational needs of the customers, students and their parents. Such a policy would rapidly end the terrible malaise that has befallen the SA government schooling system and give young people greater hope of having a rewarding and successful future.    

Source: This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.


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