The Big Read: The new normal must be greatness

Prof. (JD) Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector, comments on the state of school education, highlighting the learning crisis we have in South Africa.

This was published in the TimesLive 17 July 2015.

Something that always puzzled me growing up on the mean streets of the Cape Flats was how a long-time inmate from nearby Pollsmoor Prison would be released only to quickly commit another crime so that he could rejoin his friends on the inside.

Gradually it made sense. The man had become institutionalised; in other words, prison was the new normal. The threat of confinement, crowding, beatings, abuse, routine and danger might keep many out but draws others in. In this sense, schools are like prisons – they are institutions that over time can make the most dangerous conditions seem perfectly normal.

This is exactly what happened with the low standards of education in the schooling system. It has become the new normal. If the white government under apartheid had done what the black government now routinely hands down as normal, there would have been riots on the streets. But that is not how institutionalisation works; to get away with murder, so to speak, low standards have to creep up on you one policy at a time.

First the low pass grade, where even 30% can get you through some subjects; then the introduction of mathematical literacy where the majority can now avoid doing “the real maths”; then the introduction of a meaningless subject called Life Orientation in which children who routinely fail can still pass with flying colours by simply showing up; then the comforting report cards with multiple grading options like “not yet achieved” when in fact you failed miserably; then the wonderful gift of automatic promotion in grades 10-12 so that if you failed Grade 10, you cannot be failed again and you are ensured safe passage to Grade 12.

In some schools there are now more “progress learners” writing this year’s National Senior Certificate in Grade 12 than children who got to the last year of schooling by passing. How about that? We actually give failures the euphemistic title of “progress” students. Now where did we learn this? From our previous masters, of course, who called the native reserves “homelands” and established bush universities under the progressive legislative headline of The Extension of Universities Education Act.

If all of these retrograde policies were announced on the same day, there might be an uproar from civil society. But by introducing mediocrity one policy at a time, we hardly noticed. Now there is the threat of an exit-level certificate at Grade 9, which basically means we do not believe that tens of thousands of children can make it through 12 years of schooling.

What we should be saying is that we failed to teach all children equally and effectively through grade school. But who cares? It does not affect the children of the middle classes, so we sit tight and shut up as the majority fails to see how we gradually allowed the school system to slip into the new normal. Failure, in other words, has become institutionalised.

Sometimes I give up consulting all the fancy books on education change theory and I turn to more profound sources that warn against this slide into mediocrity – like the cartoon movie Monster University. At one stage Dean Abigail Hardscrabble, a dark red dragon with centipede-like legs, flies into a classroom of wannabe scary monsters and leaves the shivering freshmen – and their professor – with a powerful message: “If you are not scary, what kind of a monster are you? It’s my job to make great students greater, not making mediocre students less mediocre.”

Ashra Norton is the Dean Hardscrabble of South Africa. She dropped in on dinner this week as my Muslim friends were breaking fast. Ashra fights institutionalisation in one of the most dangerous townships of South Africa, Manenberg, on the Cape Flats. One well-intentioned project after another has failed in this gangster-ridden area where subject averages below 50% are common in the high schools.

So she runs a collection of new schools, The Leadership College, where pupils study free of charge, but are driven by high expectations and high-quality teaching. The first graduates have already gone on to university and one, with seven distinctions, is studying medicine. Ashra’s philosophy is simple – every pupil is already great and our job as teachers is to make them greater.

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