Imagine a learning environment where classroom windows are cracked, doors are broken, desks are vandalized, and bathrooms are dark and unsanitary. Imagine a learning environment where learners shiver in cold classrooms in the frigid winter months, cram next to each other to share desks and frequently wait for hours for their teacher who may not show up.
Almost 17 years after the dismantling of apartheid, divides in social class, race and economic conditions are extremely prevalent in South Africa. Because of the lack of academic attention, former black township schools in Soweto, like Seana-Marena Secondary School, are struggling to provide equal and quality education for learners.
“We find now that there is a huge disparity between those who are living in the townships, those who live in informal settlements and those living and working in the suburbs or have their children attending school in the suburbs,” said Johannesburg Central District Circuit Manager Jerry Waja.
About 1,320 learners, the South African terms for students, attend Seana-Marena Secondary School, from grades eight through 12. Ages usually range between 14 and 19, but there are some outside of the range.
Lehlohonolo Molefe, the deputy academic principal of Seana-Marena, said, “I have one [learner] in grade 12 this year who is 23.”
Research programs, like the Consortium for Education Access, Transitions and Equity (CREATE), have been studying grade-age difficulties and the reasons why learners are falling out of the grade-age range in South Africa.
CREATE is a research program consortium supported by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development that looks at education issues in South Africa. Shireen Motala, a project leader for a recent CREATE conference, said, “Some of the big studies we did showed that, in fact, a lot of children are getting out of age for their grade.”
There are 48 educators at Seana-Marena, including the Principal Steve Mokoena, who, because of short staffing, was busy teaching back to back classes and was unable to talk.
Although the South African Government’s education policy states that all learners are guaranteed access to quality learning, students at Seana-Marena must contend with a poor learning environment. From unsanitary conditions, to class size, to the lack of academic learning devices and overall teaching quality, learners are not given the beneficial education they need to succeed.
Duma Nkosi, a native of Dobsonville in Soweto, teaches English and history for 11th and 12th grades. Over the past 15 years of being employed at Seana-Marena, Nkosi can vividly remember the stench from the unclean, dark bathrooms, especially during the summer months, that will often linger in the classrooms.
According to a trading economics report, the current pupil-teacher ratio for secondary schools in South Africa is 29 to one.
Some classrooms at Seana-Marena maintain more than 50 learners per educator.
“You don’t have that ability to have a one on one relationship with them [learners],” Nkosi said.
Waja, who manages more than 190,000 learners in approximately 335 schools in the district, said, “If you reduce the class sizes to between 20 and 25 and assuming the teachers are working and qualified, you should have a realizable outcome within one generation of students.”
Nkosi said that besides teacher-student ratios, resources are the main difference between township schools and former Model C schools, mostly for white children.
Nkosi said that apart from blaming the previous system for South African education before 1994, most of the resources former Model C schools have are things that they have had over the years. The kids there have been brought up on the culture of knowing that the resources belong to them. They have a sense of ownership, said Nkosi, therefore, former Model C schools have been well-maintained.
On the other hand, the computer center at Seana-Marena has been out of commission for the past eight months because of burglaries, probably by people in the local community.
“There is no sense of ownership,” Nkosi said. “There is no sense of pride to say, ‘This belongs to us.’” The same sense of non-ownership contributes to the learners’ vandalism of the desks, walls, bathroom stalls and doors.
Nkosi, who is from a former black township himself, said, “If the communities change their mindset to say that this institution is the one that must take the community out of poverty, then things will change.”
Many of the learners at Seana-Marena suffer from poverty in their homes. Hunger, the main issue of poverty, affects school attendance and academic performance. Even though lunch is provided for learners in grades eight through 12, a bowl of porridge for lunch will often be the only meal some learners consume for the entire day.
According to Executive Council for Education (MEC) member Barbara Creecy’s July 2011 MTEF budget speech, which emphasized the importance of turning around education in Gauteng, 74 percent of the education allocations will be spent on “salaries for teachers, school administrative staff and office based personnel.”
The other 26 percent is left for the rest of the school funds.
It is not only the learning environment that is uninviting for the learners, but also the support they receive from their educators. Junior Kagiso Masekoameng from Mapetla said, “I think more could be done in terms of teaching.”
Recent CREATE studies show, “The delivery of the content of the curriculum [by educators] was poor or incorrect,” Motala said.
It has become a normal occurrence that the week after reopening Seana-Marena from a three-week winter break, there will be no learning. Senior Whitney Kgopane from Phiri said she has friends who deliberately do not attend school for the whole week. “We don’t even submit the assignments because we know they won’t ask for them,” Kgopane said.
It is not rare to walk through Siena-Marena on any given day of the week and see a classroom full of students without a teacher present.
“In my 10th grade I was without a history teacher from February until November, which is practically the whole year,” said Kgopane. Luckily, she was able to teach herself the material, while she watched many of her fellow classmates struggle to pass the grade.
Former Model C schools, “have an unfair advantage over us,” said Masekoameng, who sometimes resents people who are in more privileged schools.
Learners in former black township schools do not produce the same results as learners in white township schools.
“We are all equal, but some are more equal than others,” said Kgopane.
Kgopane, who plans to study law after she graduates from high school, said, “Next year when I go to varsity, the difference will be visible.”
There are a number of students present in school, but there are little results showing substantial student improvement. “Children are in school but are excluded from learning,” said Motala.
Poor financial situations make it difficult for learners to go to better schools. “If our parents had enough money,” said Kgopane, “Then we wouldn’t be here.”
In South Africa, there are public schools, like Seana-Marena, where poor parents are exempt from paying school fees and then there are private schools. At fee-free schools, employed guardians like Kgopane’s and Masekoameng’s, often contribute to a small R150 fund per year (about $22).
Even though Masekoameng’s family can afford the small donation, he agrees with Kgopane that, “No one wants to be here.”
Kgopane and Masekoameng discussed together how most learners are uninterested in the way the curriculum is taught, which is a major factor, along with teenage pregnancy, contributing to drop outs. “With this environment, it’s sort of hard to stick it out,” said Kgopane.
Kgopane said, “Some people are uninterested because they think, if the teachers have given up on us, I give up on me.”
Parents play a major roll in a learners education too. CREATE emphasized in a 2011 policy brief that, “Parental involvement in their children’s education is an important contributor to meaningful and equitable access in South Africa.”
Kgopane and Masekoameng both agree that although child-headed households are rare at Seana-Marena, there are still many children living with parents who do not care or do not know the skills to help.
CREATE found in its November 2010 Country Research Summary, “With unemployment hovering around 25 percent (2009 figures), there appears to be few economic rewards for remaining in school, let alone completing grade nine, unless higher education is envisaged.”
The unemployment rate affects the way learners view their need to stay in school.
“If you look at the unemployment rate, it is predominantly blacks who are unemployed,” said Kgopane, “It is because they are not aware of the career opportunities they can go into.”
Molefe explained that most African teachers did not have much of a choice in careers during apartheid. The choice was either to become a “teacher, policeman, nurse, and if you’re lucky enough to be brainy you’d become a doctor or lawyer,” she said. This effects the way some township school teachers now carelessly view their career of teaching, said Molefe, “They’re just here, it’s just a job.”
During apartheid, there were certain careers that were strictly reserved for white people. When comparing the way the job market is now with its employees, “I think the physical apartheid has ended, but the mental apartheid is still there,” said Masekoameng. This contributes to the reason why so many blacks are still extremely impoverished in South Africa.
“I literally have to get up every morning and encourage myself that I am doing this so that I can get out of Soweto for a better life,” Kgopane said.