BY SARAH LAURENCE
“Anything is possible, when pressure for results is high enough,” says Harry Pearce, head of MI5 in the British drama Spooks. His words come to mind while reading How to Fix South Africa’s Schools, Jonathan Jansen and Molly Blank’s new book — which is a damning denunciation of the state of South African education, as well as a template for turning schools around without an increase in resources or government assistance. Despite spending the largest percentage of the national budget on education (more, as a percentage of our GDP than any other African country), only 20% of our schools are effective and we consistently appear at the bottom of student achievement league tables.
Jansen begins by stating that, “This is not a book. It is a short and simple manual that any community… can use to ‘turn around’ a dysfunctional or ineffective school.” Part document, part documentary, the manual contains DVDs (shot by American filmmaker, journalist and ex-teacher Molly Blank) showcasing the lives, communities and effective strategies put into place by the selected schools that work.
The pun in the phrase “schools that work” is intentional, as it denotes both the labour of a team of stakeholders working together to ensure success, as much as the adjectival result of effectiveness. These 19 schools have also been chosen carefully. They are all models of excellence that do “exceptionally well in very challenging circumstances” (such as having few resources, being in poverty-stricken communities and gang-ridden areas or drawing on a large and diverse feeder area) and tend to be previously non-white, government schools. In short, the book shows us that if these schools can be models of excellence owing to the hard work of principals, teachers, learners and parents, then any other school can follow suit.
Case studies of a principal who arrives at his school at 5 am every morning, of a rural school that achieved a 100% matric pass rate despite having no water or electricity or a township school that went from a 28% pass rate in 2004 to an 85% pass rate in 2012 are remarkable, inspiring and energising. They do, however, make it plain that these are extraordinary examples made possible by the team efforts of extraordinary people and it is dispiriting that these advances have been made despite and not because of government involvement in government schools.
Scattered with quotes from teachers, principals and learners, the manual is broken down into simple lists — about the state of education in South Africa, future consequences, mistakes ‘we’re’ making and the good practice lessons displayed by the selected high functioning schools. Lastly, built upon this foundation, are the “10 Strategies that Can Change Our Schools”.
Although the authors are careful to state that schools operate in very different geographic, social and cultural contexts to each other and that success can be elusive, falsely engineered through statistics and are not easily transferable, the common sense and good practice strategies should be consistent in all schools. They include firm routines, extended learning time, high expectations, a balance of love and firm discipline, parental involvement, leadership and life beyond school.
Although every South African knows that our education system is failing and most have readily available and often aired opinions as to why, most people do not really know much about it. This manual simplifies some very complex issues to provide a comprehensive image of the current condition of South African education and reminds us that even in these times of dire adversity, there are schools producing learners who succeed, however high the odds may be.