In 2009, in the Western Cape, 2.1% of grade 6 students in previously black schools passed the province-wide systemic numeracy test. The pass-rate in the more integrated previously white public schools was just over 60%.
By 2013 the results were no longer disaggregated by the former racial classification of schools, but by quintiles, the five groups into which schools are divided by relative poverty. Just 8,2% of learners in the poorest quintile passed the test, compared to 54% in the wealthiest quintile.
These moments of data beckon us to an important discussion, one that we seldom have.
We usually look at the problems in education through the lens of government non-delivery: furniture absent from Eastern Cape classrooms, libraries neglected in Western Cape schools, and school toilets collapsed in over-crowded Gauteng. These crises are indeed indicative of a state straining – or not straining enough – to carry out its basic responsibilities. When Equal Education insisted on norms and standards to guarantee these things it encountered the anger of politicians, but it did not provoke social controversy. Almost everyone, across social classes, agreed that learners must be provided these necessities.
Many of the struggles to improve education have been – and will continue to be – of this sort.
However, an exclusive focus on government non-delivery tends to push the effects of social inequality to the background. In fact social inequality places a glass ceiling above government’s efforts to improve delivery of education. It makes it difficult to provide a quality education for all and undermines the effectiveness of education in poor schools.
The modern ruling class values education for all. They understand that society needs the productive contributions – not to mention the taxes – of a skilled workforce. But they also understand that there are limited opportunities for material success, and that education is the gateway to these. They must therefore see that their children receive a superior education.
The relevance of this observation becomes clearer when we compare education to healthcare. You’re either suffering some form of ill-health or you’re not. Health is objective. More healthcare will make one healthier, just as better education makes one better educated. But a doctor can assess my health independently from assessing yours.
But what does it mean to be well educated? Certainly it means numeracy, proficiency in reading and writing, computer literacy, and the ability to reason and problem-solve. But in an economy where employment is scarce and competitive, we tend to measure our education against that of others. So education, unlike health, becomes relative rather than objective. The way we relate to education is increasingly about comparing ourselves to others.
This curious feature of education is sometimes explained by calling education a “positional good”. There is no point paying R200,000 for a Breitling watch if everyone has one. From the point of view of the guy with the Breitling watch, the less people that have one the better. Breitling watches are positional goods. Education, thought of as a ticket to employment, is a little like that. It is prized because it puts us ahead of others.
This may sound bizarre, but think for a second about the parents paying R168,140 a year to send a child to Bishops Diocesan College. Why do they do it? Partly, I am sure, because it is a nourishing schooling experience. But perhaps also because they believe the investment will be repaid, many times over, in increased earning opportunities throughout the child’s life. If, however, children in all schools in South Africa were getting a Bishops education it would be senseless to spend that money, and nobody would.
The economist JK Galbraith made this point in his 1958 book, ‘The Affluent Society’. The book argued that the post-World War II United States was becoming wealthy in the private sector but remained poor in the public sector, lacking social and physical infrastructure, and perpetuating inequality. Galbraith explained that private goods are more positional than public goods. In other words, when something is more equally available to all, people tend to hoard it less. But in an unequal society, where access and quality must be purchased at a price, there is a competitive struggle.
This is a well-known feature of private property: it is rooted in scarcity. This applies to education, which is increasingly central to the perpetuation of social classes and the distribution of resources in society.
In South Africa we have two related challenges in education. There is the enormous task of eradicating backlogs and putting in place a system that provides an education to every child. Progress in this regard has and is being made. And doing so ameliorates inequality. But we also need to engage unequal education more directly, as a social question. It is not enough to imagine the education challenge only as a bureaucratic, governmental one.
In our system there is no incentive scheme to attract strong teachers to low-income schools. Most talented teachers seek jobs in well-resourced middle-class schools, not the townships where they are most needed. Of course there are exceptions. The parental governing bodies of township and rural schools are usually not peopled by those with university degrees or professional careers. A poorer school’s top students may disappear on scholarships to institutions beyond the township border. This engine of educational inequality provides precious opportunities for some, but also entrenches poverty and disadvantage for the majority who remain behind.
Young people who don’t have books in their homes, who do not have the option of private after-school tutors, whose educationally dispossessed parents struggle to help them with homework, and who often don’t have a room in which to sit and do their homework, need far greater educational investment than those with these advantages. And yet they attend schools where class-sizes are larger, teachers are less proficient, and stocked libraries and laboratories are a rarity. This is strongly apparent in the Western Cape, although public education is more efficiently administered.
EE’s current mobilization in Cape Town, part of which will be a rally against educational inequality on 31 October in Wale Street, seeks to unlock this debate.
Drawing on experiences in schools across the peninsula, equalisers are insisting upon a range of measures including dignified sanitation, upgraded school infrastructure, quality teaching and textbooks, computer centres, libraries and laboratories, fair treatment for girls who fall pregnant, access to condoms and sex education, and above all safe schools and regular after-school programs. They are presently engaged in campaigns on these and other issues, in their own schools. They’re raising these as constituent elements of an unequal education system.
To put apartheid behind us, we have to reverse decades of deliberately unequal resource allocation. Doing so means thinking about education as a shared social good, as something treasured for its own sake, as the vital ingredient in the development of human personality. And we are all familiar with that idea of education – it is close at hand.
Doron Isaacs is Deputy General Secretary of Equal Education. The organisation is marching to the Western Cape Provincial Legislature today.