Is Africa's Education System Self Destructing?

Published on 17th June 2008

Young students taking exams
Many impositions on young people masquerade as concern for their welfare but have tragic consequences. In 2005, a matriculation student from Manxele High School in Eshowe hanged himself after receiving news that he had failed the final examination for a second time. He obviously believed, as  many young people are led to do, that without a matriculation certificate he had no future. Given the current educational and employment environment he was probably correct in believing that without the certificate, life would be a great deal tougher. It is tragic that he should have concluded that life was not worth living.

Some young people, for various reasons, are not good at memorising information, or concentrating on words, adding or subtracting, or writing examinations. However, they might be above average at sport, or music, or carpentry, or cooking, or anything mechanical, or a hundred and one other things that are not in the matriculation syllabus they are attempting to follow. The skills they have might be in great demand out in the wider world, but not in the narrow confines of the classroom or the examination room.

The problem is that the student is forced to fit the school; not the school forced to adapt to cater for the needs of the student. The world has changed somewhat since the last bastions of demand-driven schooling, the UK and the US, fell before the onslaught of government legislation that was intended to ensure that all young people received a sound education. These events occurred over the forty-year period between 1880 and 1920, when the last of the US states adopted legislation to conform to the new “model” of the manner in which children should be educated.

One hundred or so years later the “model” has been the subject of an untold number of commissions of inquiry, investigations and studies, all bound to fail in their fundamental purpose because their point of departure has remained fixed; government domination of the process was not to be tampered with.

In every society, educationists are invariably appointed to try and discover the reasons for their own failures. What educationist in her/his right mind would admit that the solution to the problem of failed education is to be found in setting captive young people free to choose for themselves, with the guidance of their parents, what, how and when to learn, and to select their own teachers?

Imagine the ignominy, if you are a teacher, of having to treat young learners as customers, entitled at any time to leave your classroom and never come back. The flip side of the situation, of course, is that teachers in government schools have similarly become captives, in that they have foregone the right to refuse to accept in their classrooms those disruptive young people who have no intention of attempting to learn what they have to teach.

There is a rather serious but not insoluble problem in giving young people the right to choose their own educators. Adequate alternatives to the current schooling system do not exist because they have not been allowed to come into existence. Young people could not walk out of the schools tomorrow and immediately find alternative learning establishments to accommodate them. 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 for which a demand already exists, would be created to provide whatever training young customers demanded.

A natural question would be: what about the syllabus? The answer is that the compulsory syllabus is one of the mechanisms that prevent young people from learning voluntarily what interests them most and what they are individually best suited to learn. Observe the intensity with which young children voluntarily devote hours of their time to acquiring knowledge and skills when not compelled to do so. The notion that young people would prefer to do nothing constructive if not driven is false. That they rebel when driven to do what they do not regard to be in their self-interest, is true.

Combine students who are attending a learning establishment that provides information or teaches skills in which they are intensely interested, with teachers or instructors who are competing with others for the business of the young customers and you have a recipe for success. On the other hand, compel young people to study subjects in which they have no interest whatsoever, taught by teachers who act as captors from whom there is no escape, and you have a recipe for educational disaster.

Demand-driven education for all young people can be easily instituted. That taxpayers are paying for the schooling of children of parents who would not be able to pay school fees does not mean that the government has to run schools. Taxpayers can continue to pay for tuition that is provided by competing private learning establishments.

The most difficult task will be to persuade politicians and educationists to first, release the 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 own individual talents and capabilities. Second, to remove the restrictive legislation that prevents the creation of the learning environment and facilities that competing entrepreneurs would provide to cater for the demand from eager young customers.

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

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