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Education is a human right

Education is a fundamental human right, according to UNESCO. What some argue is South Africa’s founding document, the Freedom Charter, says: “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”. With Human Rights Day on 21 March just around the corner, LEAP’s executive director, John Gilmour, examines education as a human right and that key word from the Freedom Charter: ‘equal’.

How are we doing against the noble aims of the Freedom Charter? Are we meeting the right of every child to get an education? In our South African context, the greatest challenge is inequity and in this respect we are not living up to the Charter in any way that is transformative.

Marginal and incremental
In the 2011 matric results, we are celebrating a marginal and incremental movement in results and small, anecdotal accounts of the exceptional performance of a tiny minority. In reality, the fundamental right to a quality education is denied to the majority of our children.

What celebration of the 70% national pass rate masks, are these startling figures:

  • Only 9% of students who passed maths, passed it with a mark that was good enough for them to get into university.
  • Of this 9%, around 80% are white.
  • 1 in 6 children gets below 10% for maths.

Experience of life
This focus on numbers is a distractor to real achievement, growth and healing. The numbers of children accessing education is slowly improving and the percentage pass rate climbs slightly every year but nothing has changed in the experience of a child in a marginalised community. They experience education – and life – in the same way as their fathers or mothers did 20 years ago. This is a tragic and unacceptable set of circumstances.

But the heat has been turned up so slowly that we haven’t noticed that the frog is dead. The inequity in South Africa’s education system should be declared a national emergency because by allowing the situation to continue as it is, we perpetuate the abhorrent impact of apartheid and colonialism.

We celebrate access but ignore the issue of quality. Access to our present education system  does not in any way guarantee real learning, real transformation or real opportunity.

I believe we should be taking a citizenship-based approach to education in that we must understand both our rights and our responsibilities. To use the drive from Dr Ramphele, we need to move from being subjects to being citizens. It is only if we free ourselves from subject-hood that we are able to overcome those things that are holding us back as a nation.

The right to education must be balanced with the concept of citizenship: being able to speak truth to power but also walking together as citizens with the state to bring about transformation. As citizens, we need not be the victims of politicians, bureaucrats or ‘the system’ but we can choose to be empowered to have an impact on decision-making when it comes to key issues like education.

Empowering parents
We need parents to start demanding their rights to an equal education for their children and to be angry about the quality of education their children are receiving. As a society, we need to express our outrage about the inequities in our education system.

Transformation, not reformation
What we don’t need is a reformation of the system because reformation implies that the system is fundamentally alright, it just needs improving. What we need, rather, is transformation. We need to do things entirely differently. What we’ve got isn’t good enough to improve. We must find another way to run classrooms, to bring accountability into schools and take the fear out of learning. We need to stop simply measuring passes and look at the quality of passes, and the quality of life outcomes.

The issue of inequity in education is often over-simplified: it’s the fault of the unions; teachers are lazy; local government is corrupt and slow to respond. But until citizens demand real change, desperate celebration of incremental improvement in access over any real improvement in quality will prevail. The problem is how we make the move from narrowly-focussed quantitative benchmarking to fully conscious, relevant quantitative and qualitative measurement.

Let us focus on our responsibility – the responsibility that we all have  to share with those that have nothing; the responsibility of parents to demand a decent education for their children; the responsibility of children to make use of their right to education; the responsibility of teachers to truly love and care for children. This is how we can all become part of a transformative journey that will result in significant social change and the consequent closing of the huge divide in education.

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