Poverty in our rural schools?


By dr. Jury Joubert

Being poor is only romantic in books.” – Sidney Sheldon

As in other developing countries in Africa, the majority of our rural residents in South Africa are still left behind – especially when measured against their urban counterparts.

Most school-age children in South Africa are still in rural schools where they only have a one in three chance of being able to complete their primary school education. Furthermore, poverty also has a great influence. There are numerous factors linked to poverty that put these marginalized children at risk of failing their academics.

However, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, does not seem to see it that way. Her department treats these children the same as all the other children in South Africa – it almost seems as if they see the schools as fast food shops and the children as hamburgers!

We must remember that it is a complicated “minefield” of contexts in the rural environment. Within the countryside, however, there are excellent schools. Just look at schools you can find in Paarl, Stellenbosch, Oudtshoorn, Bethlehem and so on?

When most of the learners go to school, they are already far behind the other learners in many respects. Many of the rural children are more than two or three years behind their peers who go to school in the cities. Almost 25% of these children are at risk of being diagnosed with some kind of learning disability. The rural learners are also bored with school, as the instruction consists of a dose of “drill and application” and there are almost no cognitive challenges. Statistics show that the children leave school in large numbers and enter the world – uneducated and not at all ready for the workplace.

According to the model, children are seen as products speeding along on the sausage machine. It treats teachers as if they were unskilled laborers who simply had to carry out instructions and do as they were told to do – never straying from the prescribed instructions to address and solve patterns of failure with their experience and creativity. This kind of teaching is dangerous for these marginalized rural children. It creates tunnel vision, steals the excitement of learning and ensures that children drop out of school – of which there are thousands in South Africa.

For decades, the government at all levels (even before 1994) made poor investments in the rural schools. In such a way that Human Rights Watch reported the following in a report about this under the heading “South Africa: Government Fails Rural School children“.

In the report they claim:

The South African government’s neglect of schools on commercial farms prevents thousands of rural children from receiving an adequate education. Farm schools provide the only educational opportunity to farm workers’ children in South Africa.”

About 10% of teachers across the country are absent from school on any given day and 79% of sixth grade math teachers lack the content knowledge to teach at their respective level.

In addition, South African schools struggled to teach basic skills such as reading and writing as well as early development for young children. Only 38.4% of children between the ages of zero and four attended a school system such as daycare, playgroup or pre-kindergarten programs.

The early development issue is further seen as 46.8% of parents say they do not read with their children and 43.15% say they do not color or draw with their children. Despite high numbers of education enrolments, the quality of education in South Africa is poor. Reports have shown that of the students who have attended school for five years, only half can do basic math.

Furthermore, there are little to no standards for the teachers to be held to.

The very good report Emerging Voices also refers to:

The experiences of the rural poor in South Africa are not well-understood, and are not currently fully appreciated in the processes of education policy development.”

Backlogs will not be eradicated until special catch-up programs are developed to assist the children. We know that there is a “clear lack of political will in the countryside”. Therefore, Unesco recommends that the empowerment of rural people is the first indispensable step towards the eradication of poverty. If the state understood and did this, there would now be no problem with the rural schools.

The general failure of the majority of rural schools should rather be sought in the educational process, organization, management and its application in the classrooms. It can also be called pedagogy. The solution, of course, lies in excellent, continuous and relevant training and support of teachers, which unfortunately does not currently exist.

In numerous researches it is pointed out that education departments in South Africa and district officials are not competent to handle the relevant training. According to research, the officials are referred to as “master checkers” who hand out checklists instead of supporting the teachers in their classrooms and showing how it should be done.

But we know that pedagogy is the biggest success factor in ensuring quality education – not policies and writings.

Poverty is so widespread in South Africa that it is unthinkable that one can live here without having contact with people who live in extreme poverty. The nature of poverty also makes it difficult to develop a true understanding of the phenomenon. Being poor does not just mean getting by with little or no money, but much more than that.

Between 26% and 30% of primary schools in South Africa are so-called multigrade schools – in Africa this is about 50% of schools. A multi-grade classroom is the result of combining pupils of different grades with one teacher regardless of age. Such a class is trapped in a graded system, as our curriculum legally obliges it and the assessment takes place as if everyone is mono-grade (one teacher per grade). In South Africa, the conditions at national and provincial level are not supportive at all for multi-grade teaching, and teachers are not at all effectively trained and supported in pedagogy.

The Finnish school system is based on these principles. Escuela Nueva in Colombia and the River Project in India are two other outstanding examples of this and both have already shown success over the years that multi-grade education can be highly successful. Moreover, both countries have many more poor people than us, and the knowledge is already available to us in South Africa.

Politicians must always achieve quick solutions, because maybe he/she will no longer be in the chair in four or five years. After that, they don’t have to worry either. Could this be the reason why there are so many dropout children? Since our politicians see education and schools as a mere sausage machine?

The politicians should much rather follow and implement the following statement of Human Rights Watch: “The challenge of the State is to: … adapt the system in the child’s best interest rather than the child adopt to the education system.”

  • Dr. Jurie Joubert is an education expert.