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Over the years, I have noted with some satisfaction the growth of the size of government’s budget allocation to the education system. The government and corporate through their corporate social investment spend a considerable amount of money towards our education system, and this is to be applauded. Of course we are still falling short by some margin, particularly when it comes to supporting deserving students at tertiary education level, and the proof of that is among others the emergence, some three years ago, of the fees must fall movement.

Given our level of income collected through taxes and other means and low economic growth rates, South Africa is probably not going to be able to pay for every single deserving learner’s tertiary education needs as well as all other accompanying expenses in the near future without making some drastic cuts in other areas that compete for government’s spending. Even if we were to bring the fruitless and wasteful expenditure, which the Auditor General says is hovering at around R30 billion annually, we will still have some challenges in meeting this demand.

The purpose of this dialogue is not to debate the merits or demerits of free higher education, I will leave that for another day. What I would like to highlight is the fact that South Africans, as tax payers, are not getting a good return on their investment, given the amount of money we pour into the education system year in year out.

That is not to say we do not have some seriously dedicated teachers, and administrators in government, who are working tirelessly to make sure that our children have a future better than their parents had. The issue is that when we look at the results we are producing, the skills that we have imparted in our children over the 12-year period of learning, can we really stand back and be proud that we have produced, in large numbers, learners who will change the world, make for better leaders?

Granted, not every child will be academically inclined, but given the share of the government’s budget-should we be ululating a matric pass rate of 75.1 percent? This out of a total of 629,155 full-time grade 12 learners who wrote the 2017 examination and 117,223 from the part-time stream. When you consider that the pass mark is around 30 percent, and since 2017 many learners are passing their Matric being modularized (within 18 months) the picture looks even less rosier?

I posit that it is actually very difficult for teachers and indeed parents to encourage learners to chase a dream when they cannot imagine what that dream looks like. When you discover yourself and learn about your values, have a clear picture in your mind of what you can become then you start to build hope, have the courage to rise above your life challenges, forego short-term pleasures and work harder to chase your dream. If we are to paint a picture of a future that is so vivid in the minds of our learners that they can feel, smell and touch it, they will be able to understand why they need good grades to be able to live the dream.

We create the thirst in our learners by painting that picture of the future, we do that through programmes such as Bridging for Life. This is not simply about making the journey between basic and higher education easier, but equipping them with life skills to be able to paint a picture of their own future. At Valued Citizens Initiative  and through our Bridging for Life two year programme, we develop our Grade 11 learners holistically to pass grade 12 chasing their career dreams and committing to their future.

Because I know for a fact that education is the real game-changer that can transform people’s lives, I feel passionate about making sure that education is simply not a ritual but a journey where we learn and discover.

We need an education system that, at the end of the 12 years, one is able to contribute meaningfully to society because we have empowered them with, first and foremost, a value system that makes them better citizens, skills to be able to navigate through the adult world with purpose and for those who wish to pursue further studies at tertiary level, that they are properly able to transition into the world of higher learning with ease and thrive. This is one of the reasons why we have welcomed partnership with the likes of TATA Africa, who have invested for the last 3 years into developing employability of our youth, allowing us to be able to guide learners to become problem-solvers, creative thinkers and resilient to commit to their career dreams.

Since 2010, out of the 80 percent of our Bridging for Life learners passing Matric, 65 percent committed to completing their university qualification and are now professionals, practicing in area like medicine, pharmacy, education, accountancy, art, engineering and social working.

When we start producing these professionals in large numbers, we will be proud that we, as a country pour, so much energy and resources to our education system, the results-long term will be an overall improvement of our society and our way of life.

At present, we seem to be celebrating mediocrity, because our approach is mediocre, the focus is narrow and we want to come with quick solutions not looking at the vision nor focusing on a holistic approach which inspires educators, learners to commit and parents to support and care before being providers.  

Carole Podetti Ngono is the founder and managing director of Valued Citizens Initiative, an NGO founded in 2001 that focuses on developing citizenship education and essential life skills in public schools and communities.

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