A tale of two systems
By John Gilmour, LEAP’s Executive Director
We live in a society where there are two education systems: one for the rich and privileged and an entirely parallel one for the poor. This has its roots in apartheid but despite the focus on better access to education since 1994, very little effort has been made to improve the quality of education for disadvantaged young people.
Although more and more children are going to school, the qualifications they come out with mean less and less. This is particularly true for maths and science. The somewhat unexpected improvement in the Matric pass rate in 2010 was an example of increased access at the expense of quality. More young people passed the final exam but the numbers of learners sitting maths and science declined.
We lack a suitable framework for the emotional development of learners in South Africa. Eight million children come from single-parent households and a further 4.3 million reside with neither biological parent, together accounting for 65% of all children in South Africa. Add to this the fact that many fathers are absent or not part of the emotional development of their children and you are faced with the sad reality that what used to hold us together – the extended family – is just not there anymore.
Where do children and young people find emotional support and guidance these days? Township communities are places where the consequences of apartheid are played out daily. Crime, violence, corruption, gangsterism, drug and alcohol abuse – all are somehow normalised in our society with devastating consequences for the growth and development of children.
LEAP’s response to this has been to recognise that social transformation starts with personal transformation: one person at a time, one room at a time, one school at a time and one community at a time.
We have created schools where there are high expectations, no excuses, a stepped-up work ethic and emotional safety for every learner. LEAP schools have a longer school day, Saturday and holiday lessons, enrichment activities and community engagement as part of every child’s responsibility. The LEAP Code of Conduct defines a self-regulating value system and our life orientation classes provide an emotional ‘safe place’ for young people to have the difficult conversations they cannot have at home.
We work hard to enable children to recognise and overcome the academic deficits that exist as a result of poor quality community schooling and we support them to develop their own identity, an identity that is clear, unambiguous and grounded in our African reality.
But this is only part of the solution. The line has finally been drawn through the much hoped for panacea of outcomes-based education, but the ‘back to basics’ approach that has replaced it isn’t changing practice in schools across the country. You can change the system of learning all you like but the only place we can hope to turn the tide in education is in the classroom itself.
Instructional leadership and classroom practice is where the focus must now lie. At LEAP we believe education leaders need to be in the classroom more than they are in the staff room. We have therefore made a commitment to identifying and supporting future educators to ensure that we have a pool of quality classroom leaders for LEAP and other state schools to draw on.
Collaborations are a vital part of the transformation process too. Partnerships between schools, institutions and international organisations have become a LEAP priority so that we can begin addressing the huge quality gap embedded in our education system. While we are always looking inwards at our own practice and leadership, we also look outwards to share and learn and sometimes to challenge.
Ultimately, our approach succeeds because we place the child at the centre of the learning process. We devote our full attention to nurturing the whole person – integrating the emotional with the academic – and enabling the development of engaged, caring and responsible citizens.