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LEAP shows how to save education – David Gleason

I am anxious for this country. We have millions of young people of exceptional talent and potential. Unlocking it is the single greatest task facing us and this government.

It’s official: the reason schoolbooks didn’t get to pupils in Limpopo on time was because of the Bantu education system put in place by Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. President Jacob Zuma says so, so it must be true. The reason schoolbooks got to pupils on time in other provinces isn’t known.

In a letter in this newspaper on July 20, former St Stithian’s headmaster Mark Henning relates how a group of climbers in Nepal, about to attack the Himalayas, pitched their tents in a remote village at an altitude higher than any point in SA.

At the same time a caravan of donkeys arrived, saddle bags bulging, to an enthusiastic reception. The welcoming committee consisted of the headmaster of the local school and his teachers; the saddle bags contained the year’s school books, which arrived two weeks ahead of the end of the holidays.

A single word encapsulates this: commitment. It is commitment that is missing from this country’s state education departments. It was commitment that drove Jacob Zuma from domestic work in a white man’s household to becom e president.

And it is commitment that the South African Democratic Teachers Union should be encouraging across its large and diverse membership. Why weren’t hundreds of headmasters banging on the department’s doors in Polokwane ?

The state school system has failed. Not even throwing R1-trillion at it over 10 years has changed that. It is a terrible personal tragedy for millions of poorly educated South Africans, and a lasting indictment of the African National Congress.

Escape from this isn’t possible. All we can do is put our trust in the tiny variety of schooling alternatives that handfuls of dedicated, brave and committed teachers are putting in place. An example, though not the only one, is Leap, which runs six schools across the country with funding from companies, modest contributions from the state, and help from nearby private schools catering for middle-class pupils, mostly white. Leap schools provide free education for pupils with high potential from the poorest communities.

And the going is tough. Every student has to study maths, the physical sciences and English. The day is long: 8.15am to 5.15pm, with Saturday classes and holiday programmes. And interaction is essential — with a local, more privileged school and with schools in the same township where the Leap school operates.

Results tell their own story ; the Grade 12 pass rate last year was 94%; 116 Leap pupils sat for the national senior certificate exams and all wrote maths and science. There is great concern that last year’s results weren’t nearly as good as 2010’s and a lot of soul-searching is taking place. The maths results are of particular concern — Leap students achieved an 82% pass rate, down from 98% in 2010, but still a great deal better than the national average of 46%.

Even so, 74% of last year’s Leap graduates are now at universities and Leap’s managers reckon it is the combination of personal empowerment and academic success that unlocks real change. Engineering attracted 19% of Leap’s graduates last year, 23% went into business and accounting and 17% decided education was closest to their hearts.

What does all this demonstrate? First, that any pupil from any deprived or disadvantaged social milieu can achieve startling results if the teachers are committed. Second, that the state needs to put a great deal more trust in these “charter” type schools. The amount of money that is devoted to each pupil each year in a state school should follow that pupil if he or she goes to one of these specialised schools.

This isn’t the government’s money. It’s ours as taxpayers. And if we reckon our children can get more out of special schools, that’s our right.

I am anxious for this country. We have millions of young people of exceptional talent and potential. Unlocking it is the single greatest task facing us and this government.

A couple of minutes after President Jacob Zuma had joined a small phalanx of African leaders paying homage to the boss of the Middle Kingdom, Chinese President Hu Jintao, he was also doing the impossible: he was telling his Chinese host and audience that the current African-Chinese trade relationship is unsustainable.

He is right, of course. His complaint is no different from that which Africa has had to beef about in terms of its relationship with the rapacious West for the last two centuries — those chaps come here with their money and big machines, dig holes in our ground, send the stuff they dig out to their home countries and then send it back to us in greatly enhanced form like TV sets and laptops, at vastly enhanced prices.

So, what’s new? Nothing. Just the nationalities have changed. Australia has the same problem – it has long been called a quarry for Japan.

Here are the numbers. In 1994 we imported R1,3bn of goods from China out of a total of R78bn. That’s 1,6%. Last year we imported R94bn worth from China out of a total of R690bn, or 13,4%. And exports have changed much the same. In 1994 we sold goods worth R538m to China, rising to R85bn last year.

The difference always is that we send our natural resources out of the country, and we import finished goods — goods that contain our own original material. If the West was indulging in its own form of economic colonialism, the East is doing nothing different.

Mr Hu didn’t think so, however. He promised $20bn in loans over three years and said the relationship could only grow.

“A number of us,” said Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies , “are thinking we need to move into more value addition.”

Without wishing to be unkind, that’s hardly an original observation. I’m sure there are earlier ones, but as long ago as 1934 Ernest Oppenheimer launched the programme that made use for the first time anywhere of low value industrial grade diamonds as an essential element in min e drilling equipment.

We need new concepts and dramatically different approaches, which is why government attention to scientific innovation is so critical. So get involved in the National Science Week beginning on Saturday.

E-mail: Twitter: @TheTorqueColumn

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