We don’t need no education….

27 Aug

Where do I start?… I am now a teacher of Mathematics to a class of 25 10 year old children in a South African Primary School, on the outskirts of Cape Town. The make up of the class is very mixed, but predominantly from the local area, but including kids from some of the care homes and the townships.

Anyone who worries that the English state education system is on its knees really ought to come out here for a few days; lack of resources means that every textbook resembles a handful of loose papers held together with varying layers of sticky tape, depending on the severity of damage to or age of the book. The school desks are reminiscent of those used in Britain up to the 1970s with the lift up lids, and the seat attached by means of a tubular steel structure. These are extremely uncomfortable, and not conducive to a learning environment. Especially if you are 32, and slightly larger than the average primary school child.

On first sight in my classroom, the impressively large map of the African continent looks like a useful teaching aid, until closer inspection indicates that the country just above South Africa and Mozambique is titled “Rhodesia”. Not only is this map therefore older than me, but given the seismic changes in politics of both this country and (now) Zimbabwe,  this demonstrates very clearly that the finances of the ‘new” South Africa can hardly be described as healthy.

It is fair to say that the teachers in the school are extremely pressured and often prone to taking a negative, or at least slightly cynical view of any initiatives or attempts to improve the educational and welfare standards of the children in the school. I have been more than a little surprised at the manner of shouting at pupils, and the high levels of discipline expected by teachers. Comments such as “Do you like your teeth? I will knock them out if you do not be quiet!” and “I pray to God that I keep my hands off you if I lose my temper” are daily occurrences within the general flow of the lessons. And yet, in quiet moments, I have seen teachers demonstrating real concern for individual pupils, especially those for the whom the social problems of this nation impinge greatly upon. I have even witnessed a teacher giving away their own packed lunch to a child who has been sent to school hungry and with no food. These small indicators make you realise that there are wider issues to consider than can be resolved with a Western style liberal education model. While the centre of Cape Town may boast history, relative affluence and luxury shops, apartments and Wi-Fi cafes,  it is clear only 10 kilometres outside that you are in a struggling African country, however cosmopolitan or entrepreneurial the metropolis down the road has become.

The biggest surprise I have had is the general apathy I have encountered amongst learners towards their education, however under funded or ill resourced this may be. Most children appear to be the dreadful position of being too far behind in their school work to be able to comprehend what is being taught on a daily basis, but are also too scared or embarrassed to ask for extra help, which would not be available even if they did ask. This predicament manifests itself in a feigned indifference, and while teachers here do not have the time to be able to spend to motivate each pupil to understand the key elements of each lesson, it is frustrating to be a volunteer doing exactly this, but knowing how much more time and investment these struggling children need to achieve the appropriate levels for their ages.

The irony of the present situation is that I am the man who scraped a C for GCSE Maths, and even that I am sure was more by luck than design. So, while I wander round the class teaching times tables in the catechism style so popular in the South African education system, I am not sure who is more petrified of getting the answers wrong- me or the children!

To be continued….

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