School lessons from Afar

Tom Stokes, MPP

DA KZN Spokesperson on Education

Colleen Dardagan’s recent article on the success that Zimbabwe’s schooling system enjoys – despite the huge financial and political challenges the country has experienced over the past 20 years – once again points to the key elements in a successful schooling system; dedicated teachers, strong parental support, disciplined learners and autonomous and accountable school management. The KwaZulu-Natal Education Portfolio Committee has recently returned from a study tour to the province of Kerala in India. Kerala boasts a 100% literacy rate amongst its citizens and pass rate in their schools of almost 100%. Virtually all children attend school and although there is a high drop-out at Grade 7, as the demands of poor families force older children to seek work, there is a very high pass rate for those that remain in the system. One school in particular was very impressive. It is a girls-only high school with about 5 500 learners – the biggest school in India. There are about 200 teachers and about 150 classrooms. The buildings are in poor condition, dark and dingy, many of them with the old square blackboard perched on a wooden easel. There some classrooms with inter-active whiteboards. Yet I got the impression that most of the real teaching gets done in the standard classrooms in conditions quite similar to those found in our poorest rural schools in KZN. Unlike our under-resourced schools however, this school has a 100% pass rate with an 85% maths pass rate. Every pupil does maths and the overall pass percentage is 50%. We had a chance to meet the principal and her senior staff and we asked about staff discipline, learner discipline, drugs, pregnancies, trade union politics and other issues that bedevil our own system. Their response varied from amusement to confusion: teacher unions, where they exist, play no part in school management, drugs in school and school pregnancies are non-existent and teachers and pupils love coming to school! What was the key reason for this idyllic situation we asked? The principal pointed to a row of people in the room and a group crowded around the door to the staff room where we were meeting. “Parental support and dedicated teachers,” she said.

The extent of parental support across all the schools we visited in India was inspiring. Some of the schools were in slums where living conditions were as bad as our informal settlement areas. Yet the value placed on schooling by parents was obvious to see. Although parents by-and-large see schooling as a way for their children to escape the poverty trap there was more to it than that: learning for its own sake held value. Teacher salaries in India’s state schools are low compared to SA, with an ordinary teacher earning about R4 000pm. Yet almost all high school teachers need to be university graduates with a stipulated pass mark before they are accepted at a college to complete their teaching diploma. Primary school educators are required to have a teaching college degree. We had meetings with department officials around the issue of in-service teacher training in particular as that is a vexed problem in our country, and the extent of the research, effort and importance given to this aspect was impressive. What was particularly interesting was the emphasis they placed on teaching practice and inter- relationships. In other words there is focus on the way information is conveyed and the kind of personal communication skills required to be effective in class. They also run continuous workshops on curriculum interpretations and new classroom methodology to respond to new curricula.

It would seem that teacher development is the core business of the Indian education department in Kerala rather than the high-handed oversight model that our country’s education officials seem to be obsessed with. We were not able to witness a teacher training workshop but judging by the intense pupil involvement and enthusiasm in the lessons we observed, teacher methodology is of a high standard. At the heart of the Indian experience was the acceptance of accountability; not simply as a defensive response to the paymaster’s instructions, but to a personal responsibility as a citizen and a member of a community. Quite clearly the Zimbabwean and Indian experience is similar in that parents and teachers are united in making their particular school work. The officials are merely a distant support, not an intrusive administrator so that principals become entrusted with, and accept responsibility for, the success or failure of their school. Accountability is not to some distant head-office but to the people around one: parents, pupils and colleagues. It is a formula we need to follow in South Africa.

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