Education Needs Complete Revamp

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By Andrew N. Matjila Namibian education is in the doldrums, waiting to be saved: The power of education to change our world into a better place, to discover, to rule, to invent, to conquer or to destroy, has long been realized, hence the old English expression: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Rulers throughout history used education to develop a favoured group to excel above those who were regarded as potentially dangerous for some or other real or conjured reason. In the history of South Africa over the last fifty years, the Verwoerdian era should be singled out as a supreme example of how a specially designed education system was intentionally used to ensure that the black people of South Africa, and Namibia (then South West Africa) would forever remain “The hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the white man. (These words were used by Hendrik Verwoerd himself). The intention with that education system was to expose the blacks to a carefully selected educational content that should fail to encourage independent thinking, inculcate subservience to the “superior white race” and depict the black man as a second class human being. The empowering and emancipating influence of education was to be limited for the black child to remain part of a controllable and well-behaved group, primarily pruned for manual labour only. Yes, the wings which education gives to man’s mind to conquer the skies, to reach for the stars, or to survey the depths of the oceans should be kept clipped and shortened for the black child – that was the whole idea. Those claustrophobic years of the Verwoerdian and subsequent oppressive eras are something of the past and Namibia is now for the past fifteen years master of its own destiny. We are in the unique position to design for ourselves an education system that should address in a calculated strategy the pressing needs of our people and our region. Our education system must be custom-made for our unique situation, but should also be compatible with the outside world to be an export product into our sub-region. In other words, young people qualifying themselves in various fields must be employable anywhere in the SADC Region. Yet, whereas these opportunities are begging for exploitation, we imported a misfit into our region. The present system may be good elsewhere, but it has been failing in Namibia since its inception. The British were wise enough to design an export product from which they gain substantial amounts in foreign revenue while we slog along to make it work. Time has come to look objectively at our education system and to acknowledge to ourselves that we have made a serious mistake. The greatness of a man lies in the ability to own up that he made a mistake. Furthermore, in the land of the brave, it takes a brave man or woman to admit and say: “I did it with good intentions, hoping that it would work. I apologize for the mistake.” The African Experience Clearly, the great transformation that has come about on the continent was not born in the laboratories of academics and intellectuals, but in the confines of a terrible struggle. It is the product of a great sacrifice by selfless individuals many of whom laid down their lives. In modern day Africa, we know that great men such as Kwame Nkrumah set the pace over forty years ago. That worthy son of the soil was followed by many who dared to defy colonial rule. Today Africa is free – or is it really? While the purpose of this article is mainly to propose a workable system that could benefit young Namibians, it is worth noting that Africa is still going through a period of conflict – men are fighting for power and control. A corporal today becomes a general the next. Disappointingly, very little has emerged as a product of modern African advancement from any of the countries that have been independent for decades. Instead, many of the highly qualified children of Africa do not work in their countries of birth at all – no. Their leaders do not need ” too clever upstarts” who would threaten “democracy”. The young men and women are forced to seek employment elsewhere, mostly overseas. Result – Africa cannot even produce its own food, but depends on aid. – Africa does not invent anything but utilizes inventions from abroad. – Africa does not produce agricultural scientists, but mostly army generals. – In Namibia, Chinese building contractors are imported from China to construct buildings. A very poor reflection on local builders indeed. – Africa is notorious for piling up debts, and then having the humiliation of going back to previous colonial masters on bended knee to beg them to write off the burden. The tragedy in our present lamentable situation in most African countries is that, although we are still largely dependent on our past colonial masters in fields such as education, economic know-how, human development, technology in medicine and military hardware, there is a growing tendency to confuse adventurers with potential investors. Most African leaders are constantly on the move trotting around the globe either on endless state visits or shopping sprees which are often publicized as being in the interest of their countries. The Namibian Experience Prior to independence, Namibia depended largely on Pretoria for its educational needs. Textbooks, syllabi, writing materials, equipment and examinations all came from South Africa. With the dawn of independence that situation was reversed. Advisors now come from elsewhere abroad (not a bad practice though) and books and examinations come from Great Britain, at great cost. Fifteen years since we entered the gallery of free nations we can sit a while and take stock of our achievements in education. One thing that cannot be denied is that more children are at school now than during the colonial years. But the new system of education which replaced the past has not just had smooth sailing. I must concede that an education system to succeed needs decades of trial and error. Unfortunately though, Namibia cannot afford the luxury of waiting for decades. The young people in particular want to harvest the fruits of their uhuru now. These are not forthcoming. Something is dreadfully wrong somewhere. Let us take a brief look at the following issues: We buy school books (80% to 90% of our needs) from Britain at very high cost. True, we do not have writers in Namibia who are capable of producing such books. Examination question papers for final-year students of Grade XII are drawn up in Britain, marked and moderated there at great cost. We are incapable of supplying all our learners with books, as a result two or three children share one book. In a class of forty children, there are only four or five textbooks. This is frightening. Before independence, textbooks were even replaced within days when children lost them. Clearly, we shall not be in a position to afford this expensive system forever. It is defined to become a terrible burden, if it isn’t already. The government of independent Namibia has been given ample time since it came to power in 1990 to implement an alternative education system that could address the urgent needs of the people, which could set new standards of living for the population. In search of an acceptable system, the government opted for the Cambridge System, in terms of which our learners would qualify for an IGCSE or HIGCSE certificate upon the completion of the Grade XII course. Once legitimacy was comprehensively in the hands of the new government, all those who cherished a sound education for the children of Namibia were convinced that the Ministry of Education in particular would divert all its energies towards achieving a resounding success story. Unfortunately, it was not to be so. Now, in the sixth year after the dawn of the third millennium A.D., the century of technology (because that is definitely what it is going to be), the system has already proved itself completely inadequate. Thus far, convincing and conclusive results that would gain the confidence of Namibians in the system have hitherto remained as elusive as soap bubbles. Admittedly, well-trained manpower is not yet available to make a success of the venture. More money than in any other ministry in Namibia has been pumped into education during the past fifteen years, yet the Namibian youth are not better off now than they were during the previous dispensation with regard to their marketability in the employment sphere. Young people who complete their school careers face the nightmare of finding employment with the qualifications they can offer, especially since only a very limited number can be assisted to enter tertiary institutions. They are also not equipped to start viable own ventures, which could put them on the road to independence and self-sufficiency. Why, many can hardly communicate in simple understandable English. The general word they know is “basically.” The present predicament and therefore untenable situation in which our young people find themselves is a clear indication that the education system of the past fifteen years is failing to address their needs and aspirations. If the millions of NamDollars poured into education are considered and weighed against the fact that school leavers find themselves without marketable skills for the employment market one cannot but come to the conclusion that our education system has failed to fulfil the promises made by politicians in 1989. The question now is: Whether to continue on this dangerous road with a failed system in its present format, in the hope that results will definitely start showing some twenty years down the line. Or whether it should be adapted to become more needs-oriented. Or whether: To scrap it in toto. The vibes around the country seem to favour the latter action. Earlier I said that millions if not billions have already been pumped into the system. Year in and year out millions go to Britain to pay for question papers, books, and other services. It has become prudent at this stage to take a hard look at the immediate factors that contribute to the failure of the system: Teaching Personnel Most teachers in Namibia were trained for a totally different education system, in a different milieu. The training institutions in which teachers were trained in Southern Africa used syllabi drawn up to suit conditions in Southern Africa in particular, especially at primary school level. The training also took the cultural background of the trainees into consideration. Moreover, the training was in large measure aimed at producing teachers for the black education system (South Africa and Namibia). The training did not, therefore, equip trainees sufficiently academically to do justice to a system that would be imported into Namibia after independence. Sadly though, the new Ministry of Education did not put shoulder to the wheel to make contingency plans to prepare the country’s teaching staff for the new challenge. Political decisions were taken at great risk to the country’s youth in general. The efforts of the Ministry of Education to upgrade the skills and knowledge of serving teachers through in-service training is minuscule in comparison to the real needs. Teachers have to learn through mostly workshops and conferences, but have limited access to well equipped libraries to broaden their knowledge. In some cases in rural schools mail-order catalogues provide for additional reading materials as teachers do not see their way through to subscribing to magazines or newspapers. Catalogues come free of charge. Furthermore, many teachers do not take their school work seriously. Here, I must emphasize the difference between a workshop, which lasts for a few days, as compared to a course, which could last for a month or longer. This is what the introduction of a new system calls for: courses for teachers to prepare them. Many teachers still can’t speak ordinary understandable Margaret Thatcher English, and that after fifteen years of independence. Learner’s Own Initiative: The present system is based to a large extent on the learner’s own “research” initiative in libraries. Prescribed textbooks only cover part of the syllabus. Consider the fact, that even the cream of Africa’s best known academics and intellectuals were not brought up under such a system. One wonders how today’s children, exposed to all the evils of modern-day living – TV, drugs, crime, etc., can honestly manage to ” go it alone,” and use their own initiative to do anything right, let alone study. Worse still, because of a lack of good libraries in the vast majority of our high schools, students simply have to rely on the contents of their textbooks, which do not cover the syllabus at all. Again, because of the poor educational background of many of our teachers, especially in rural areas, they neither can add much to the textbooks by way of additional information. Many children who leave our high schools these days have a great difficulty in expressing themselves correctly in simple English, unless it is something they learnt by heart. The radio does not make things easier either, sending a continuous stream of mispronunciations and virtually “newly discovered” or coined English terminology over the airwaves. The Old Versus the New: The system enhances the disparity between the well-equipped former white schools with libraries, and the poorly equipped schools which traditionally catered for black learners. The above also holds true for rural and urban schools, the latter having better qualified teachers and better access to additional study/teaching materials. In the city areas many black learners commute between black townships and the formerly white towns to schools where tuition is better. Certain formerly white high schools are well respected by black learners because “white teachers take their work seriously”, according to the learners themselves. These schools far outclass and outperform predominantly black schools. This is an interesting development which however does not seem to nudge the Ministry to look critically into its planning, successes or failures. There seems to be complacency all round, with everyone blaming everyone for everything that is or is not functioning. Some teachers who should really be hardworking because they have better qualifications and can thus produce better results either take up senior positions in the Ministry (a terrible loss to learners), or spend most of their time standing around the school premises and having a good time. These days some teachers even join learners to toyi-toyi in the school grounds to demand for the dismissal of their headmasters. Others have even opened up businesses and have additional sources of income. Gone are the days when schools used to compete against each other in examination results. The old Matric Jacket is still worn however, albeit as a status symbol rather than the “badge of achievement”. We’ve reached the crossroads, yet we dare not blame the teachers alone. After all, they woke up one morning and had to start teaching, through the medium of English, a far cry from the Afrikaans which is the lingua franca of Namibia, and will continue to be so for a long time to come. Shortage of Books and Teaching Aids, and Teachers: The great shortage of textbooks in our schools retards and disrupts the progress of learners. One should think of long distances between homesteads and villages in communal and rural areas of our country to imagine the inconvenience caused for learners who have to do homework if two, or three, learners share one textbook, which is actually the situation in our schools at present. Other very indispensable teaching aids also fall within this category. Of late, it has become common for teachers too. In some schools, classes go on for months with the children spending most of their time biting their nails with no one to teach them. No careful planning seems to play any role at all except the ready excuse “basically, we are looking into the issue” being proffered whenever participants in the chat shows raise their voices. If ever there was one issue that was up to standard in the past, it was the planning. Expensive Books: Many textbooks are acquired at great expense to our country since they are imported from Britain, the education system being British. This results in large sums of money leaving the country year in, year out. If books were bought from South Africa, our SACU partner, money would be circulating in our own region. But of course, our authorities favour going overseas to do business. South Africa has everything we need, from books to training colleges to universities. That is a country by the way, where the first successful heart transplant on earth took place. This is a country that invented the white centre line of the road which is so very important to motorists. It is the first country in the world to establish an Air Force, even before the USA. This is a country where the very first black nurse in sub-Saharan Africa qualified, and many other plusses. Namibia has the right to gain from South Africa more than any other country in the world. That is our mother country by the way. In the final analysis, the Government of South Africa is beholden to Namibia for development assistance, no doubt about it. But we seem to be pussy-footing in our dealings with that country. If two million Zimbabweans, who were formerly British subjects, enjoy the hospitality of the South African Government, the children of Namibia, whose births were recorded in Pretoria, are surely the princes and princesses who deserve more. Gold Rather than Water in the Desert: Whereas, the education system currently in use does have good qualities, its shortcomings make it inappropriate for the Namibian situation. It can be likened to offering gold to a man dying of thirst in the desert, where ordinary water could do the trick. The unkindest cut of all seems to be the total disregard of our African heritage. Very little if ever was done to develop local languages during the past fifteen years. If the people were Afrikanerized they must now be Anglicized, at the expense of their own culture. At least Afrikaans is an indigenous language of some of our population groups. Examinations and Recognition To have the IGCSE and HIGCSE qualifications internationally recognized, Grade 12 examination papers must be purchased in Britain at great cost, except for certain subjects such as African languages. The nations who are developed today are those who did things for themselves yesterday. As we demonstrate at the venues of meetings of the rich countries, requesting them to cancel our debt burdens, we must never lose sight of our own inability – that of staying without debts, when in fact we’ll be creating new ones sooner or later. We need to look at creating a new structure in our region by which our examinations should be recognized internationally. Right now, hundreds of young people who left school last year still have no work, nor have they acquired any significant skills by which they could claim recognition. For the African experience therefore, it is a tragedy that thousands if not millions of young people should be milling around aimlessly in the market There is no work for them because in most cases they cannot even employ themselves, they are unemployable. Namibia must now start making its hay while the sun shines. Many of our neighbouring countries have either been completely devastated and razed to the ground, or are in the process of being bombed to smithereens. Sooner or later peace is bound to come to these countries, and with it reconstruction and rehabilitation. The young people of these