The quickest and most effective solution to South Africa’s education crisis is to make education and training of young people attractive to entrepreneurs. The cost will be no higher than what government currently spends per child on schooling.
Entrepreneurs would do more than merely improve the quality of learning; they would teach real skills and increase the demand for the services of young graduates, assuring them of jobs once they complete their training. In addition to ensuring that students become highly literate and numerate, entrepreneurs would impart knowledge and skills training covering a wide range of potential careers.
An important pre-requisite is that the range of skills chosen for the imparting of knowledge must be demand- and not supply-led. Education entrepreneurs will need to respond to demands from potential employers that are picked up by parents and their children, encouraging the students to enrol for courses that will qualify them for the jobs where the greatest potential skills shortage will exist when they complete their studies.
The notion that young people should follow a standardised curriculum through to matriculation and then only think of gaining specialised skills is archaic. Education pioneer Maria Montessori demonstrated that the average child is capable of completing a high level of fundamental education (literacy, numeracy and a wide general knowledge) by the age of twelve. From that age onwards, there is scope for great diversity, enabling individual students to follow their special interests and to marry those interests with the demands for skills and knowledge that become apparent in the market place.
Young people can become multi-skilled by the time they reach the current “school-leaving” age of 18 or 19. Instead of trying to fill their heads with information that is of no interest or value to them in their future lives, in a dynamic education market education options would be developed that would allow students to follow their interests and develop their individual talents and skills.
The institution of student-based education requires policymakers to face up to a stark reality. The interests of students need to be placed above those of teachers who continue desperately attempting to keep the supply-dominated system in place. They consider the school and all the students in it as their “property” to manage for their benefit. Teachers have done this for more than a century. No vitally important economic functions, such as education and skills-training, can be effective if, for the entire twelve years of the exercise, there is no personal goal-directed purpose.
Current schooling, to use a sports analogy, can be likened to coaches spending years teaching all young players to play hockey when the greatest demand beyond the school gates is for cricket and swimming. No one will argue, least of all the students, that everyone needs to be numerate and literate, but students who have no intention of following careers requiring advanced mathematical or literary skills should be encouraged to adapt their studies to meet their expected requirements.
Lamenting the poor mathematics and science results in schools while continuing to maintain an archaic schooling system, will not produce more able mathematicians and scientists. Young people need to be convinced by demonstration that proficiency in maths and science will enable them to achieve above-average earnings. Specialist maths and science institutions will more likely achieve such an objective through advertising the successes of their students.
Compelling highly sports-talented young people to spend the greater part of their time on academic subjects when all they really want to do is play sport is cruel and counter-productive. This does not mean that sportswomen and men should not be educated. It does mean, however, that their priorities should be reversed. Sports should receive top priority, if that is what students and their parents prefer, and then numeracy, literacy and other important fields of knowledge should follow.
Total earnings of athletes participating in a multiplicity of sports are huge and sport is now a legitimate and highly-paid career for many people. In some sports, peak ability is attained at a young age and the rules are generally bent for established young stars. The careers of the many young people, who currently do not qualify to be exempted from the strictures of schooling, are being frustrated as a result.
Sport has been used as an example because people will be familiar with real-life examples of the frustrations that some young athletes have suffered because they have not attended a school for the affluent, or been fortunate enough to have wealthy parents who could overcome the constraints that regular schooling hours impose on their sporting careers. However, the frustration that will be suffered by young athletes is merely a fraction of the frustration suffered by millions of young people who have their interests, aptitudes and wishes totally ignored.
A budding young motor mechanic who wishes to spend most of her time repairing motor vehicles, has no interest in regular schooling. She is likely to be an unhappy and disruptive student, but will spend hours studying every manual she can find on motor vehicles. In order to follow her interest she would become highly literate and would study whatever aspects of mathematics she would need in a career in motor engineering. Allowed to follow her interest, such a student would have every chance of becoming a highly competent and knowledgeable motor engineer, able to earn a comfortable living. There is probably no likelihood, however, of such a student being treated with the same indulgence as a sports star.
If there were to be a large range of specialist education and training institutions competing financially on level terms with conventional schools, in other words with students having similar access to taxpayer funding, there is no doubt that they would, over time, attract the majority of students away from conventional schools. The reason is that specialist schools would provide the education and training that students actually want rather than what others decide to impose on them. And being entrepreneurs, the private educators would provide the best education at the most competitive prices. With the opening up of the education industry, the SA economy will grow and have the capacity to offer employment to more confident and able school leavers.
This article, which has been adapted from the FMF’s comment on the National Development Plan, 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 Foundation.