School failures, school discipline and the search for political band-aids

Tom Stokes, MPP

DA KZN Spokesperson on Education

News of the compulsory passing of learners, who have failed once in a three year phase, has caused consternation amongst academics and school principals. The fear from both quarters is entirely justified.

Academics at tertiary education facilities will fear that applicants to these colleges will be entitled to enroll, irrespective of having attained a matric pass. Principals and teachers will wonder how they are going to control disruptive learners if they do not have the threat of failing those learners who don’t comply with classroom requirements. This fear is justifiable within the present school context.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has legitimate concerns that schools are holding back learners in Grades 10 and 11 to boost their matric pass rates and escape censure from their bosses. Many of the annual 500 000 drop-outs in the senior school phase are part of this “culling” exercise and contribute significantly to the country’s unemployment and crime statistics. Little wonder then that the DBE is seeking radical ways to address this problem and seems to be the reason for the “no-fail” policy now in place.

Unfortunately this quick fix will not address two crucial defects in our school system which are the major contributors to the problem at hand.

The first is the failure of the FET phase to cater for and encourage those learners not suited to the academic stream to change their course of study after Grade 9 to one that is career-oriented and practical. Currently there is a schism between the DBE and Department of Higher Education (DHE) around FET schooling from Grade 10 to Grade 12.

Unlike a country such as the Czech Republic, where school going children are guided through appropriate scholastic programmes from an early age, we in South Africa wait until learners fall off the precipice in matric and hope they will find a suitable course at our poorly resourced, managed and conceived FET colleges. So between the ages of 14 and 18 learners with little academic bent have three choices: disrupt school because of boredom or repeated negative feedback, drop out of school, or continue through the system and fail matric.

Quite frankly it is criminal incompetence on the part of our political leaders not to have addressed this problem along pure educational lines rather than seek easy political band aids.

The second problem is linking school discipline to academic progress. Often the most intelligent pupils are the most disruptive and the academically challenged the most obedient. It seems illogical then to use the threat of failure as a tool to improve discipline. Unfortunately so many of the discipline tools once available to teachers have now been removed and with increasingly irreverent learners – a product of our liberal democracy, social media and questionable role models and, more importantly, the diminished power of principals – school discipline has become a very serious problem.

The solution to the problem of ill discipline should not lie in academic retardation but in redirecting disruptive learners to more suitable alternative institutions than the schools within which they are not suited.

The most successful schools in our country have learner populations that want to attend that school, who fear losing their place at that school and whose parents make economic sacrifices to keep their children in those schools. In other words, there is value placed on the daily classroom activities and learners themselves form part of the disciplined ethos of the school. Where parents are unconcerned about their children’s’ education, where classroom lessons are dull, where teachers are uninspired and unskilled, and where the school management is disorganized and disempowered, learners will, understandably not value what they get from the school and challenge its authority.

Our current education dispensation is premised on two fundamental tenets: that compulsory education should be provided up to the age of 15, particularly till the end of Grade 9, and that two parallel streams would be available after Grade 9: vocational and academic. The implication of these principles is that a learner who has completed the GET phase and has turned 15 is not compelled to be in an academic school and the State is not compelled to provide further education for that learner. Of course the State needs to cater for other needs, including the creation of opportunities for its citizens to attain skills in order to earn a living and contribute to the economy. It is why, at the nexus between GET and FET, between compulsory and optional education, between the authority of the DBE and the DHE, most of the disarray occurs and the biggest failure of our education system is most evident.

The poorly conceived ‘quick fix’ of passing learners who have failed the academic stream requirements merely papers over a far more fundamental problem which is now too politically unpopular to attend to.