South Africa needs less schooling, not more

Policy makers must stop acting as though increased schooling and higher education budgets are a silver bullet that will solve all South Africa’s problems. Schooling itself may be creating more problems, not solving them. Rather than increasing our obsession through making schooling more compulsory, longer, stricter, and more invasive, we should be rethinking education entirely.

At the start of 2022, the Basic Education Laws Amendment was introduced. Among some other proposals the law proposes making Grade R compulsory, and introducing jail time and fines for parents who fail to ensure their children attend school.

How will requiring five year olds to attend school solve our drop-out rate? And how will punishing parents for their kids not going to school solve anything other than breaking up households and causing further impoverishment?

They won’t. Because school is not a silver bullet that we can fire brutally into SA’s problems until they go away. We need creative solutions to solve our education and economic crises. The factory-model of compulsory schooling and standardised education doesn’t solve these.

The model of schooling we force our kids into faces increasing problems, which are often just brushed aside as the problems of administration, or the ‘whining’ of children. But shouldn’t the happiness of our children matter? And shouldn’t the fact that 36.5% (as of 2021) of matric graduates can’t find a job mean something else might be the matter?

The standardised model of all schools reflecting the same curriculum, same structure, and same vision is the problem. It runs counter to invention and the very creative spirit that we should be encouraging in children.

Every few years, the government imposes a new standardised curriculum. It was OBE, then it was CAPS, and now that’s proving to be insufficient to solving our education problems – so expect something new soon. Parents respond by sending their kids to schools that offer IEB or the Cambridge curriculum; a veritable alphabet soup that doesn’t really make any substantive changes.

All of it involves children rote learning information that they feel is irrelevant to them, writing exams that don’t truly test knowledge, and forgetting about everything once they hand in their work.

Home schooling and independent schools have helped mitigate some of the bad characteristics of SA schooling, but still suffers from the fact that students are beholden to a compulsory and standardised curriculum. A curriculum that is insufficient in truly preparing children for the wider world.

What SA needs is a true competition with curriculums and schooling models. Rather than private and independent schools being merely mirrors of public schools with vaguely better teachers, we should be seeing truly innovative institutions that experiment with how we can better ourselves and our children.

Schools should be able to set their curriculums, without the heavy oversight of an incompetent state. These curriculums can reflect the very needs of the children that go to those schools. Why should a child with absolutely no interest at all in a subject be forced to be tested on it for years? Especially if it proves irrelevant to them for their entire careers afterwards.

Imagine a school being set up that focuses on enriching a child’s entrepreneurial skills. Imagine a high school that begins training children for a medical career straight from grade 8 onwards. We can’t imagine every single possibility.

In no way does this eliminate what we have now. If there is a demand and need for schooling that reflects the current curriculums, then they will still exist. The point is to allow space for competition and diversity – so that we can see what people can create.

Universities could respond to this de-standardising of the curriculum by introducing their own entrance exams. Instead of a national matriculant exam, which is largely seen as insufficient to testing students for university, universities and even particular departments can craft the exact type of exam that they feel would allow them to test students adequately for acceptance.

SA could be a world leader in education, if only we would stop trying to make a square wheel move, and instead embrace innovation and creativity. And most importantly of all, enable the creative growth of our children through saving them from a stratifying and depressing institution that only seeks to mould them into a carbon copy of everyone else.

Story creds to Nicholas Woode-Smith