Making a difference in education: Getting Practical

When we consider the challenges in education in South Africa, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and to be left wondering “where do we start?” The feeling is quite normal actually but it’s what happens next that matters most. To avoid the common responses of disbelief, paralysis or anger, it’s important to recognise that in every difficult situation, regardless of how complex it may be, we always have a degree of agency. We have the ability to do something that will contribute toward the future we hope for. In this post, I hope to spark some ideas about how to get involved in the education space. 

Here are a few ways to start getting practical:

1. Educate yourself:
One of the most important things we all can do before doing anything, is to learn more about the problems concerning schooling and education. Doing so will allow us to engage far more meaningfully in the education space. Indeed, it’s worth noting that often times even those with good intentions can contribute to reproducing the problems in education.

A good starting place would be to read Prof. Pam Christie’s “The Right to Learn” and her more recent “Opening the Doors of Learning” which together provide a very good socio-historical analysis of past and present challenges in SA education.

If you’re based in Cape Town, join the monthly meetings of “The Education Fishtank”, a popular education meetup which hosts both researchers and practitioners in the field as guest speakers, followed by robust Q&A sessions. 

2. Volunteering
Volunteering is a great way to assist a school. While many schools who need it the most often do not have the capacity to manage volunteers (there is logistical planning required in managing volunteers which is often not as straightforward as people assume), there are several local non-profit organisations like Outliers, Bottomup & LifeMatters that are able to facilitate this relationship in a manner that benefits the school and does not an additional load on teachers. Most people only think about literacy or numeracy when volunteering but so many people have professional skills that could be offered pro-bono. For example, are you a music teacher that can commit 2 hours a week for a full year? Are you a registered psychologist that could consider taking 1 or 2 pro-bono clients per year? Do own a transport company that could donate X amount of trips per year? Are you a professional photographer that would like to teach teenagers a short course in photography skills? All of these are very helpful ways to contribute to schools that extend beyond the typical focus on language and mathematics education.

3. Advocacy
If you’ve committed yourself to learning more about education, you’ve volunteered at an under-resourced school and seen first-hand some of the challenges faced and perhaps you’ve even started reading policy documents like the South African Schools Act, then you may be looking for ways to engage in education at the level of advocacy.

If this is you, then it might be time to start having conversations with your local school SGB about transforming admissions policies and school fees. Perhaps your child’s own school needs to begin reviewing a code of conduct that treats some learners unfairly? Additionally, there a several ways that privileged schools can partner with under-resourced schools in ways that do not perpetuate dominant power structures in society. This is the micro-level.

At a macro-level, it may be worthwhile looking at the work of Equal Education, Section 27 and other civil society organisations and joining some of the campaigns for justice in education.

Part of this work will require many of us who are middle-class to reflect deeply on how our own actions and the schools we support with our economic and social capital are contributing to inequalities in the education system. Such reflection is most likely the harder work to do, to sit with the discomfort and allow God to speak to us through that discomfort.

4. What about my local church or group of friends?

There is so much more exciting work that can be done when people work together.

One serious problem in most under-resourced schools it that fact that they are grossly understaffed. Post-provisioning policies mean that teachers are distributed “equally” (not equitably) across schools according to a set teacher-pupil ratio, regardless of school context and the cost of fees. This means that for school of 500 learners, they will both receive about 15 educators from government. One school might have annual school fees of R20 000 per pupil per year, enabling them to employ several additional educators and support staff, while the other may have school fees of only R400 per pupil per year, along with a low fee collection rate,  which will not allow them to hire even a single additional educator.

Just think for a moment what it might be like if every church in South Africa decided to consider hiring a teacher/registered counsellor/social worker at a local school instead of hiring an additional church staff member? Given that there is often a higher number of churches to schools in many communities, churches could even consider clustering together to support schools in their educational district or circuit.

One thing to remember, is that while all of the above ideas are helpful in some way, engagement in all of the ways described above is what will make the real difference. Churches could fund additional school teachers and it would help but that shouldn’t be done without also advocating for improvements or changes in post-provisioning policies - we should still be asking why it is that government is funding the same amount of educators in schools serving wealthy families, where parents are able to fund educators regardless of government contribution. We should also still be wondering why so many so many schools remain segregated by race and class, and what contemporary education and economic policies have to do with the perpetuation of such segregation. We should still be fighting the good fight, for the most resources to go to where they are needed the most. 

By Ashley Visagie
Executive Director of Bottomup, a non-profit providing education enrichment services to under-resourced schools on the Cape Flats.
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