SA schools suffer from bureaucracy disease

Thousands upon thousands of South Africa’s young people are victims of a crime of vast proportions. The crime of “dumbing down” – so called by award-winning New York teacher, John Taylor Gatto, who maintained that children would be better off not attending school at all rather than having their self-esteem and learning ability destroyed by bad teachers.

A family member of mine recently embarked on a “rescue operation” to save a 10 year-old boy from life-destroying illiteracy and innumeracy. The boy was attending one of the “not-teaching” schools we hear so much about. With the active involvement of the boy’s mother, the good Samaritan found the child a new school that runs special classes for children that have fallen behind. They were told that they had brought him to the school “just in time”.

After only two months in his new school, the change in the boy is astonishing. From being dull, rebellious, disinterested in learning and “mixing with the wrong crowd”, the boy has become bright, well-behaved, anxious to learn, and reading, writing and doing calculations for the first time in his life. This young boy moved from a school where teachers do not teach to one where teachers care and do teach; with dramatically positive results.

How many such children are there who could be saved by a little bit of assistance and guidance? How many could be saved by the money set aside for them in the government’s budget but which is not being devoted to teaching them as they can and should be taught?

Without the right teaching, what hope do the children have? Young South Africans are constantly exposed to negativity from the people around them, TV shows, radio broadcasts, and publications that sow dissension, racialism, envy and even hatred, portray their world as miserable and without hope. They are faced with the dismaying news that more than 70 per cent of the unemployed people in the country are under 34 years old.
According to official reports, many of them are trapped in dysfunctional schools, with teachers who do not have the interests of their learners and students at heart and who do not hesitate to desert their classes to go on strike. Most dispiriting of all is to learn, on passing the matriculation examinations, that what they have studied for matric has such little value that, if they aspire to go on to university, they need to attend bridging classes which will provide them with the academic competency required to cope with first year university studies. And that goes as well for matriculants who excelled in their final examinations.
Professor Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State says: “If I had to make the choice with my own children today, I would seriously consider not sending my child to school in South Africa, for one simple reason: I do not trust a system that makes it possible for a child to pass Grade 12 with 30% in some subjects and 40% in other subjects. I would be filled with fear when I discover that you can get 32% in mathematics and 27% in physical science and still get an official document that says you can continue to study towards a Bachelors degree at university”.

Bravo to Professor Jansen for putting the facts on the table, but are the politicians and government officials charged with education listening? And what is being done to solve this appalling problem?

The main trouble with government schooling is that it suffers from “bureaucracy disease”. Bureacracy disease afflicts, to a greater or lesser extent, all entities managed by governments to provide goods and services, no matter whether their tasks are to provide education, electricity, water, railways, health care, mining, roads, food or whatever else is designated to be an essential good or service.

Harm caused by bureaucracy disease became patently obvious when the world could observe people with the same backgrounds, levels of education, languages and cultures, such as in East and West Germany, North and South Korea, China and Hong Kong/Taiwan, or Cuba and the large Cuban community who fled to Florida, USA, being subjected to very high levels of bureaucracy in one territory and a relatively lower level in the other.
Some same-country experiments reveal similar effects; poor economic results in areas suffering from heavy doses of bureaucracy disease and better results when the affliction is reduced. West Germany, which was crippled economically by Nazi fascist bureaucracy, prospered when it threw off much of the disease after 1945. Britain, heavily bureaucratised during the 1939/45 World War, struggled on under a heavy dose of the illness until some relief was administered by the Thatcher government. Even less afflicted countries are not entirely free of the disease. Unintentional real live experiments show that the economic performances of less contaminated economies far outstrip those of more heavily afflicted ones.

Schooling, in most countries, suffers from this devastating disease, which is impervious to changes in the rest of society because vested interests benefit from an absence of change. The idea that all children should be compelled by law to attend school because, in the absence of the threat of force, some parents might fail to educate them has been translated into a bureaucratic monstrosity detrimental to most children.

Laws imposing compulsory schooling have brought with them bureaucratic rules and structures that prevent schools from educating children in a manner that will be more appropriate to the changing conditions under which they will live their lives. And more importantly, to provide the kind of education and training that individual students and their parents consider will best suit the students’ personal interests, talents, characteristics and ambitions.

Government should be seeking the most effective, low cost and efficient policy to transform the education of South Africa’s young people to ensure that the vast majority become numerate, literate, confident, capable young adults. The evidence is clear; remove bureaucracy and schooling will flourish in the same way as entire economies flourish in its absence. Dump the strait-jacket of the imposed curriculum and allow education entrepreneurs to provide the schooling parents and their children want and need. Purchase top quality schooling for the poor from competing private providers with taxpayers’ money rather than having it squandered on non-functional government schools. Today’s children do not have to be tomorrow’s desperate young adults. Apply these suggestions and see the remarkable change they will bring about.

AUTHOR Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and the author of Unchain the Child. 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.

FMF Feature Article / 3 April 2012

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