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Valuing education

 By John Gilmour, Executive Director

In the improved 2011 national matric pass rate, we seem to have celebrated 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 still denied to the majority of our children.

What the 70% national pass rate masks, is:

  • Only 9% of students that passed maths, passed 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.

The focus on pass numbers is a distractor from 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.

National emergency

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.


As Dr Ramphele says in the foreword of the 2011 Annual Report, we need to move from being subjects to being citizens. 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.

We need not be the victims of politicians, bureaucrats or ‘the system’ – we can choose to be empowered, to have an impact on decision-making when it comes to key issues like education. Parents need to start demanding their rights to an equal education for their children and be angry about the quality of education their children are currently 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 reformation of the system because reformation implies that the system is fundamentally alright. 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.

Let us all now focus on our responsibilities – 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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