In the news

There’s a lengthy article on the front page of the New York Times today about how the education system in South Africa is failing:

Thousands of schools across South Africa are bursting with students who dream of being the accountants, engineers and doctors this country desperately needs, but the education system is often failing the very children depending on it most to escape poverty.

Post-apartheid South Africa is at grave risk of producing what one veteran commentator has called another lost generation, entrenching the racial and class divide rather than bridging it. Half the students never make it to 12th grade. Many who finish at rural and township schools are so ill educated that they qualify for little but menial labor or the ranks of the jobless, fueling the nation’s daunting rates of unemployment and crime.

I was pleased to see such an important topic receive such attention. There really are students who do dream big dreams and want to change their world. I know some of them. And then you look at their school and wonder how the dream will ever become a reality.

But, based on my experience interacting with the South African education system, the article omits at least two important considerations.

The first is the school fees that students still have to pay – especially at the secondary level – that make it impossible for many students even to access the education, no matter its quality. This continues to be true despite the government’s putative commitment to “fee-free” education.

The second is the language barrier. South Africa has 11 official languages but most of the resources and exams are in English. That is a substantial obstacle to students who are raised in, say, a household where Xhosa is the first language and whose parents know so little English they are unable to reinforce the education at home, even if they wanted to. You may know all the math skills you need to pass the test but if you’re incapable of demonstrating that knowledge on an English-language test you fail.

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