Early childhood development. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Early childhood development. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

LAST MONTH, it was reported that about R4bn is owed to universities in outstanding fees, and there are threats of renewed student protests against fees this year. It is still not entirely clear how the fee shortfalls are to be met, and a core group of protesters intends to continue the fight for free tertiary education for all.

Free education is a fine goal. There are compelling reasons why SA’s youth want access to university education: for starters, Statistics SA reports that two-thirds of adults with no formal education are poor, while this is true for only 5.5% of those with a post-matric qualification.

For people living in poverty, a university education is perceived as a passport to an entirely different life.

In the 2015 matric results, there was an increase in the number of pupils qualifying for admission to bachelor studies (from 150,737 in 2014 to 166,263 in 2015).

But, as these young people celebrate their achievements and turn their attention to the next phase of their lives, the real question is not whether their tertiary education should be free, but whether they have been prepared to cope in a demanding tertiary environment or to contribute to the growth of the economy if they choose not to study further.

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OPEN access to universities is a good thing. But pupils who come from poorly resourced schools are terribly disadvantaged — even those who have reasonably good matric passes.

Young people living in poverty may be no better off by gaining financial access to university if their path is blocked by a poor secondary and primary education. There is little point in giving our youth free university education if we do not also reform our schools.

Reams of research indicate that it is a far better use of resources to invest in education at a younger age — and the younger, the better. According to research based on data from the annual national assessment tests, if children cannot read, write and count at the required level by Grade 4, the chances that they will reach university are very slim.

There are far greater returns on investment for the money invested in education during a child’s early years. According to early childhood development organisation Ilifa Labantwana, larger amounts of funding are required to make an effect on older pupils.

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CHILDREN living in poverty tend to be stimulated and engaged less because their parents are often stressed and busy, and they hear far fewer words spoken every day than middle-class children, according to research by neonatologist Hallam Hurt. This results in poorer performance on IQ tests and at school, which has a knock-on effect throughout the children’s education, causing a drain on resources over the years.

To provide life-changing early childhood development programmes across the country, R2.4bn is needed annually — less than the current shortfall in tertiary education. The more resources invested in children’s formative years, the less will be required for damage control at secondary and tertiary-education levels.

But it is more than just the amount of money invested in education. How and where the resources are invested is critical and needs to extend beyond the classroom.

OUR experience at Christel House school in Ottery, Cape Town, is that our pupils, all of whom live below the poverty line and would be classified in quintile 1, require social support, nutrition (two healthy meals a day), community outreach, healthcare, and other services including transport to and from school.

Christel House boasts a 100% national senior certificate pass rate since its inception; its graduates are more likely to be enrolled in tertiary institutions (40% versus the national average of 16%) and the school’s drop-out rate from Grade 1-12 is 7% versus the average quintile 1 drop-out rate of 49%.

Most crucially, Christel House graduates are eight times more likely than pupils at quintile 1 schools to be employed after they leave school.

Such a holistic approach includes tackling teacher absenteeism, violence in schools (perpetrated by pupils and teachers), access to good sanitation, and equipping teachers with the skills, to meet pupils’ emotional and developmental needs.

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MOST importantly, schools must focus not only on academic skills, but also "soft" skills, such as leadership, a sense of responsibility and social awareness.

This approach costs money, but it is well spent. While the government has a vital key role to play in supporting education and creating an enabling environment for learning, corporate partners and other donors can also make a huge difference, not only in terms of funds, but in terms of expertise.

A recent publication by the Bertha Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business documented numerous initiatives across the country, where public and private sectors have joined forces across the spectrum of education work — from early childhood education to teacher development to science education — to create working models to advance the development of South African children.

"I love the metaphor of the ecosystem that frames these innovations, for it speaks to issues of interdependency and sustainability; in other words, that multiple stakeholders are required, from funders to NGOs) and from government and teachers, to make such innovations possible, visible and durable within the education change landscape," Jonathan Jansen writes in his foreword to the book.

Such partnerships can work to ensure that school leavers emerge better equipped to take on demanding tertiary studies. They can also help prepare pupils, more broadly, to become active economic citizens.

Not all matrics might want, or be able to, study at tertiary level and schools should find ways to help channel these pupils more effectively, perhaps towards starting their own businesses.

The latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report showed that youth in sub-Saharan Africa are the most entrepreneurial in the world, with 52% expressing the intention to start their own businesses and 28% already running their own businesses. Yet in SA, which had the highest unemployment rate of the countries surveyed, just 13% expressed entrepreneurial intentions.

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CLEARLY this country has some way to go then in instilling in its youngsters a greater appetite for starting and running their own businesses.

Schools have a vital role to play here. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report, there is a clear link between level of education achieved and propensity to start and run a successful business that creates jobs for others.

In the wake of the #FeesMustFall protests, we should remember that it’s not only about access to university, but about what goes before and comes after. Whether our matriculants study after school or go straight into the job market or start their own businesses, if they are not equipped to be active economic citizens, all our efforts would have been in vain.

• Sheridan is the CEO of Christel House, a privately funded school in Ottery, Cape Town, that seeks to break the cycle of poverty

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