Africa's Educational Disaster

Published on 16th November 2009

Excited school pupils                    Photo courtesy
While young people wrestle with their matriculation examinations, adults remember their own experiences. Grandparents, and even great grandparents, have had that same experience despite the years that separate them. The subject content might be different but the fundamental methods are virtually the same. How is that when the world around us has changed so dramatically over the last 100 years? 

On 1 October 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T Ford, selling at $825, to the American market. Using improved technology and mass production techniques he steadily reduced the price. By 1916 the basic touring car cost $360. He sold 472,00 cars that year. How did he achieve this objective of making motoring accessible to ordinary people? By refusing to add cost-raising extras. One of his slogans was, “You can have any colour you like as long as it’s black.” Only when the increased variety of features and colours offered by his competitors started to seriously erode the sales of Ford cars did Henry Ford give in to making the changes we still see in cars today. 

Schooling worldwide is stuck in the Henry Ford Model T mass production mode. Critics use the term “sausage-machine” to describe schooling. The reason is the lack of choice; the same lack of choice as in paint colours that Henry Ford gave the buyers of his cars.

Young people are the captives of technocrats. Parents wield very little influence over what their children are taught or how the success or failure of the process is measured. The most they can do is enrol their children in schools where they receive kind and impartial treatment and where teachers attempt to teach students something of value.

Children are not vehicles for the patterning and uniformity that initially proved successful in the manufacture of the Model T Ford. Each child is unique and not there to be turned into a pattern individual. A system should be in place that allows each young person to develop to their full potential. 

Some youngsters cannot memorise information, concentrate on words, do arithmetic, or endure examinations. However, they might be above average at sport, or music, carpentry, cooking, or anything mechanical, and a hundred and one other things not in the matriculation syllabus. The skills they are capable of most probably are in great demand out in the wider world, but not in the narrow confines of the classroom. 

Students are forced to fit the school. Rather it is the school that should be forced to fit the students. Between 1880 and 1920, the last bastions of demand-driven schooling, the UK and the US, fell before the onslaught of government legislation. Legislation which introduced the new “model” of the manner in which children should be educated to ensure that all young people received a sound education. A hundred and more years later, this “model” has been the subject of numerous commissions of inquiry, investigations and studies. Every one bound to fail because their point of departure remains fixed; no tampering with government domination of the process.  

Everywhere, are educationists appointed to discover the reasons for failure. What educationist in their right mind would admit that the solution to failed education is to set captive young minds free to choose for themselves, with the guidance of their parents, what, how and when to learn, and to select their own teachers?  

On the flip side, teachers in government schools have similarly become captives. They have foregone the right to refuse admission into their classrooms to those disruptive young people who have no intention of learning. 

Alternatives to the current schooling system do not exist because they have not been allowed to come into existence. Young people cannot walk out of a school tomorrow and immediately find an alternative learning establishment to accommodate them. Once a demand is identified, learning establishments to cater for young people wishing to specialise in mathematics, soccer, science, golf, music, cricket, computer technology, cooking, investing, acting, engineering, medicine, design, massage and myriad other skills would emerge to provide whatever training is required. 

What about the syllabus? A compulsory syllabus is a mechanism that prevents young people from learning voluntarily what interests them most and what they are individually best suited to learn. Young children voluntarily devote hours of their time to intensely acquiring knowledge and skills when not compelled to do so. That young people prefer to do nothing constructive if not driven is false. What is true is that they rebel when they are driven to do what they do not regard to be in their self-interest. 

By combining students who are learning information or skills in which they are intensely interested, with teachers or instructors who are competing with others for the business of the young, you have a recipe for success. On the other hand, by compelling young people to study subjects in which they have no interest, taught by teachers who act as captors from whom there is no escape, you have a recipe for educational disaster. 

Demand-driven education can be easily instituted. That taxpayers pay for the schooling of children whose parents are unable to pay school fees does not mean that government has to run schools. Taxpayers can just as easily pay for tuition provided by competing private learning establishments. 

The first and most difficult task before us is to persuade politicians and educationists to release all captive children so that they can purchase, with the assistance of taxpayers if necessary, and the advice of their parents, the skills and knowledge that best suit their individual talents and capabilities. The second, to remove legislation that prevents competing entrepreneurs from creating the learning environment and facilities that will satisfy the demand of eager young customers. 

The case for change is compelling. Inappropriate learning environments are blighting the lives of millions of young people worldwide. Compulsion, and all the vested interests it has spawned, has got to make way for voluntary learning.

By Eustace Davie,

Director of the Free Market Foundation.

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