Illiteracy has resulted in lack of black academics!

The president’s remark last week about the dearth of black academics has stirred debate in education circles, and there are few dissenting voices.

Anybody over the age of 40 would have received their primary and secondary education under the apartheid government, which didn’t encourage academia for black people.

What is worrying those in education more, though, is the relative scarcity of rising young black academics; those who will take our country forward into the business, science and technology of the future.

And that fault lies squarely at the government’s door.

Statistics released by Nick Taylor, head of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit at the Department of Education, bear that out.

He says many, if not most, pupils are falling behind in terms of literacy from as early as Grade 2. If the education system cannot fully equip pupils with this foundation ability, how can it be expected to produce individuals suited to academia?

The decision to become an academic is driven by two primary factors. Competency in a given field and a deep-set interest. Our education system fails to foster either of these two things in pupils from a primary level and continues to fall short all the way up until they matriculate.

This means that not only are pupils not capable of entering a life of academia, but they aren’t interested in it either. The depth of the problem is illustrated by a study from the University of KwaZulu Natal which revealed last week that it would take 382 years for the demographics of South Africa’s top five universities to accurately represent those of the country as a whole.

The education system needs to be overhauled from its most basic level to get children on the right track right from the beginning, rather than trying to shoehorn them into the field later in life.

The Department of Education needs to ensure that every effort is made to stop children from falling behind, especially in areas as crucial as literacy. Taylor is well within his rights to call the situation “really, deeply disturbing” when you consider that his department’s findings revealed that in 133 schools surveyed, 13 percent of pupils could not read a single word of English.

These are children between the ages of six and 10, not preschoolers; the ability to read in English, the language of academia, should therefore not be in question. How can President Jacob Zuma expect any students to reach the highest level of education when most of them cannot compete even at the most basic level?

This isn’t just a case of throwing money at it, public education makes up 18 percent of South Africa’s government spending, yet adult literacy rates sit at just 89 percent. Chile, for comparison, spends the same percentage on education, yet has an adult literacy rate of 98.6 percent. It isn’t that our education system is grossly underfunded; it’s that it’s grossly inefficient. The consequences are clear, Chile is placed 41st on the Human Development Index, South Africa occupies number 121.

This redesign of the curriculum needs to bear in mind the difficulties faced by those in challenging socio-economic situations and who don’t speak English at home. Teachers need to be capable of realising when a child is struggling and know what to do about it.

Furthermore, academic careers need to be made a lot more appealing so that those who are capable make the transition into a life of academia. If you consider the position of a black university graduate from an underprivileged background who is given the choice of becoming an underpaid professor or going into the substantially more lucrative private sector, which one seems more attractive?

The lack of respect for education in our country is astounding; you only have to look at the countless instances of pupil-on-teacher violence for proof. A pupil from a township school told me that pupils don’t see the point in going to school, particularly when their teachers are often no-shows as well. An education system that doesn’t teach pupils well enough is a problem, but one that leaves them disenchanted with the concept of education is catastrophic.

The focus needs to lie at the beginning and work to instil an interest in education that will serve them throughout their schooling.

If President Zuma doesn’t make the necessary changes to basic education soon, none of us is going to see more black academics for a long time.

* Godfrey Madanhire holds a Diploma in Education from the University of Zimbabwe and a Bachelor of Technology in Education and Management from the Tshwane University of Technology. He is a motivational speaker and life coach and trains people on careers and life skills at schools across South Africa for Dreamworld Promotions.



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