A real solution to SA's education crisis - TechCentral

A real solution to SA’s education crisis

marc-ashton-2-180There are few things which upset me more than the state of the South African education system.

It is a system which consigns millions of people to mass incarceration every year and, much like prison, spits out detainees who are more useless than before they went in.

Simplistically, we try and cram as many kids as possible into a standardised education system, tell them that they need to serve one third of their time to get parole (a 30% pass mark) and then, like some morbid real-world edition of The Hunger Games, we ask the lowest common denominator to go and compete against the privileged to get jobs in a market where one out of two won’t find employment.

By the way, the industrial age jobs like drilling into rocks or digging up and then reinstalling traffic circles in Linden are probably not going to exist in 20 years’ time. At least on planet earth.

Yes there has been some innovation from the likes of Launchpad and Spark Schools and hopefully this addresses some of the foundation and primary school-level education issues, but the real challenge is for those who fall out of the education funnel and then become a drain on society.

What happens when you are 23 years old and sitting in Orange Farm because you lost your parents to HIV years ago and are now responsible for three school-going kids? Imagine being a 16- year-old Sandton kid who has had their brain, creativity and personality dulled by daily doses of Ritalin because it will help you “concentrate” and “behave”.

What creates the issue?

Firstly, I am a big believer in the Free Market Foundation view that education should not be compulsory. By pushing more and more people into the funnel and telling everybody that it is “okay to understand only one third of your work”, you are breaking the system for those who do actually want to be there.

The long and the short of it is that education is no longer an enabler. It is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder on the basis of supply and demand. Hell, people are prepared to pay 145 times earnings to get in on the bubble at Curro or 25 times historic earnings at Advtech. Basically we’re saying that Advtech — a business which was listed in 1987 — will see its earnings grow twice as fast as the average company on the JSE. It’s a bubble.

If you read the statistics, the size of US student debt is many times bigger than the US housing crisis, which blew up the global economy in 2008. But, hey, we’re getting smarter … that judges, politicians and the average American will spend the rest of their natural life paying off debt is just a sideshow. Thank goodness they have that Donald Trump guy to talk some sense into them right?

Yes, that was sarcasm.


I was in a state of despair until I came across a very interesting not-for-profit project last week called WeThinkCode, which is using the power of technology to teach South Africans how to code.

In a nutshell, you can learn to code from the basic principles right up to higher level coding through gaming principles. Irrespective of whether you have a coding background or even tried to code, you have the opportunity to learn at a generalist level before starting to specialise in things like database or language-specific programming.

The initiative is kicking off with an interesting challenge to the South African technology community where tech and business leaders are going to try their hand at coding and will compete against each other on 29 September.

I am participating, even though my coding skills are incredibly light. I support it because I think that it completely democratises education and lets anybody try their hand at a technology skill.

We have this argument that we want to become a “knowledge-based” economy but we are not prepared to share knowledge and technology know-how. Here is an initiative which does exactly that and the kids that are involved receive actual practical training. You get a coder with some experience and on top of that you enjoy a tax benefit for training a young South African as an employer. It becomes a win-win.

Let’s learn from this model and get education back to being an enabler rather than a commodity.

  • Marc Ashon is MD of Moneyweb. This article was first published on Moneyweb and is republished here with permission


  1. Greg Mahlknecht on

    While I’m not a particular fan of the standardized education system, I have yet to see a viable alternative. It’s all good and well saying education should be optional or tailored to the student, but haven’t seen any information how this is expected to work in the real world? How for example would tertiary education be able to determine which students to admit?

    Something that never seems to be mentioned in these “future of education” pieces is the teachers. As far as I’m concerned the issue isn’t the system, it’s the implementation – the world thus far has been built from standardized education, it obviously has good points, let’s rather refine the system than try and totally replace it. Certainly in South Africa, a large part of the issue is the teachers.

    >By pushing more and more people into the funnel and telling everybody that it is “okay to understand only one third of your work”, you are breaking the system for those who do actually want to be there.

    I disagree… I don’t see how the system is being broken for the high scorers by the low scorers? And maybe some of the low scorers really want to be there? And if the attitude really is “it’s okay to only understand 1/3 of your work”, this reinforces my belief that the teachers and implementation are as bad than I think they are!

    And the idea of not taking “hunger game” type exams? How then does an employer select a candidate? If, as the author points out, only 1 in 2 job seekers will get employment, at some point their skills are going to be tested against the other candidates. Not having exams in the education is just delaying the issue.

    Education has always been a commodity; my family wasn’t able to afford to send me to a private school, even though there were a number in the area, but I turned out OK, and I’d say the 80% of the top students in my BSc class at varsity came from government schools – the system was working better back then. It wasn’t weighed down with corruption and incompetence.

    We need to at least attempt fix the current system before considering its abandonment.

  2. Vusumuzi Sibiya on

    >>We need to at least attempt fix the current system before considering its abandonment.

    “No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

    What I believe should be happening is a closer cooperation between education institutions and the business working environment. The curriculum should always involve some time spent in the practical job environment before one can complete or pass a particular module; and in the past, at such institutions as Technikons, you had a system of alternating a semester with 6months practical on the job experience.

    With our rapidly changing world, I’d go so far as to recommend alternating every quarter. It doesn’t take more than 6months of practical on the job experience to figure out if you’re cut out to do it and make a success of it; as well as have – the understanding and application of wise thought that counts; and the opposite also applies… you’ll be able to figure out within 6months of practical on the job experience if you need to find something else to pursue;

    …so at the most only a year to guide towards the right decision rather than going through 3years or more at tertiary; and 5years of high school only to find that you’re not cut out for the work you studied for or no one wants to hire you when applying for or going to interviews for the job.

  3. Greg Mahlknecht on

    >“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and application of wise thought that counts.”

    Couldn’t agree more – and a standardized environment can indeed test understanding and application of the subject matter.

    I’m a strong supporter of the practical aspect of education, but months of on-the-job experience simply isn’t a attainable goal especially in our job market. Where would these 500,000 pupils/year fit in to an already struggling job market? They basically need to be baby-sat. It’s another idea which Is awesome in theory, unworkable in reality. A really good teacher would give projects which gave the students an idea of the real world application of the subject.

    Pracs and projects are the compromise the education system has made. When I was at school/varsity in the late 80’s/early 90’s, pracs and projects were indeed a meaningful portion of your year-end mark.

    I think what it comes down to is that I came through the system which everyone’s writing off as a load of crap, I might have got lucky with some great teachers who made the system work for their students – we should be looking to those who are able to make, and have proven the system can work before those who want to replace it with something totally new and unproven.

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