Why the ‘in spite of’ narrative is stifling progress in education

Why the ‘in spite of’ narrative is stifling progress in education
Zah’Rah Khan

Picture this. A learner, who attends an under-resourced Quintile 1 school, walks long distances everyday just to be in a classroom. She relies heavily on the school’s feeding scheme for adequate nutrition. Her parents are well-intentioned but are unable to provide the level of support she needs due to their own lack of educational opportunities. Even in the face of these hardships, she is able to achieve academic success and become the first in her family to attend university.

Or take learners who attend a no-fee paying secondary school in South Africa’s second largest township. Many of the school’s learners live in dangerous informal settlements, without access to basic services like water and electricity. The school allows learners to sleep at the school, so they are at least able to study. But this has financial implications. The small amount of money budgeted for other activities has to be used just to keep the learners safe. Regardless, the school has been able to consistently achieve a matric pass rate of over 90%.

If these learners are able to overcome formidable challenges, why can’t every learner in a similar situation do the same?

On the surface, this is a seemingly logical assumption, but ultimately it is a patently unfair one to make. Crucially, it also prompts the question: Is education the great equaliser we make it out to be?

In his biting response to the release of the 2022 National Senior Certificate results, renowned South African Analyst, Eusebius McKaiser, puts this question into context. Not mincing his words, he warned us of the perils of vapid ‘’sloganeering’’, ‘’celebrating exceptionalism’’ and just how ‘’stories of individual triumphs can inspire us and distract us’’.

This Humans Rights Day promises to be no different. South Africans will face a deluge of stories of how our youth defy all odds to succeed – in spite of a lack of quality education, a fundamental human right.

Now, this is not to diminish individual achievement, or to imply that these individuals should not be celebrated. It is to say that we ought to have a greater consciousness of the fact that it is because of the very lack of access to quality education that the success of the majority of South Africa’s children is hindered. If education is to be that panacea that levels the proverbial playing fields, it must be of a certain quality and this quality must be enjoyed by all.

This is the narrative we must begin to pay more attention to.

Researchers the world over acknowledge that social structures either contribute positive or negatively to an individual learner’s success. Even though it has been proven otherwise, people still believe that learner success is wholly due to innate intelligence, talent and diligence. The notion that education is a meritocracy is at best as an ideal, and at worst, fallacious. In reality, race, gender, economic status and access to social capital are far greater determinants of a learner’s academic success.

Understanding this, how do we then begin to narrow the existing chasm and ensure that all children, regardless of socio-economic status, receive an equal opportunity to succeed?

Interventions that attempt to reduce the disparities in the education system have an integral role to play. Our point of departure should be capacitating school leaders, which include principals, school management teams and school governing bodies.

School leadership plays a significant part in improving education outcomes for learners by influencing the motivations and capacities of teachers, as well as creating a conducive school climate. Effective school leadership is vital in improving the efficiency and equity of schooling. An equitable system will see more of our learners achieve academic success, and this will lead to the fulfilment of global sustainable growth and development goals.

There are home-grown organisations working tirelessly towards this outcome. Citizen Leader Lab is one such organisation. The award-winning NPO utilises research-backed leadership methodologies to enhance the leadership capabilities of school leaders. The organisation’s flagship programme, Partners for Possibility, invites citizen leaders, or citizens who care deeply about the future our country, to partake in co-action, co-learning partnerships with school principals. These pairings see principles gain the requisite knowledge and skills to enable them to create schooling environments conducive to quality teaching and learning, as well as effectively mobilise communities around their schools.

Perhaps the question is not whether education in itself is the great equaliser. It boils down to what, we, as citizen leaders, make of education.

The next time you immerse yourself in an inspiring story of triumph over adversity, be inspired to take your thinking a step further. Ask yourself: With the resources, skills and time at your disposal, what can you do to achieve quality education for all? Together, how do we create a future where the inspiring story of the outlier becomes the norm?

About the author

Zah’Rah Khan heads up the editorial team at Citizen Leader Lab. As a multi-published editorial writer, her focus topics are education, leadership, youth matters and Constitutional Law.