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The Big Read: Lack of vision writ large

A good policy is written in a way that inspires those who act and excites those who benefit by appealing to the best in humankind.

A new policy wins attention through the track record of its predecessor policies – did you deliver what you promised with the previous policy?

A policy gains credibility through truthfulness about the present – one that offers a factual, honest and open account of the state of the target sector, be it health or housing or land reform.

And an effective policy is one that creates a sense of urgency among the people that something needs to be done quickly to correct what is wrong in one or other area of governance.

You will find none of these elements of a good education policy in the 30 pages of fine print in the education, health, science and technology discussion document of the fifth national policy conference of the ANC.

To begin with, the basic education statements are mixed up with higher education and training, health, science, technology and innovation all referring dutifully to a maze of earlier policies. Which would be a good thing in an advanced economy where education systems worked, or where the policy indicators showed how these elements come together to drive a powerful economy. None of that.

The document is clumsy and cumbersome, an unwieldy product, no doubt, of different government departments and various stakeholders all trying to get honourable mention.

I remember those days when simply putting the word “disability” or “equity” in a draft policy document was enough to satisfy an anxious constituency.

In short, what you have is a document that says everything and in the process says nothing. How on earth can 54 policy inputs on basic education come to anything? It will not.

Of course, one must understand that this is a set of political statements and, therefore, it panders to a restless constituency for whom words like “radical” and “revolutionary” – even if the policies themselves contain nothing close to these ideals – can put a lid on popular anger for a while longer.

As a political document one therefore has to accept the sheer vanity of excesses like the one about a single, glorious movement that fought apartheid to bring us to where we are now.

Yet it is the meaningless and meandering language of the policy that really frustrates. Like 54 things that should be done, be encouraged, be attended to and the like in basic education. And then there is the sheer dishonesty.

The government is attending to gangsterism, we are told, as bullets are flying around children on the Cape Flats and some schools shut down and teachers are hospitalised for stress.

Pupil performance is increasing according to international tests of achievement – except we are not told that this is from a very low base and we still remain last or second-last among nations in science and mathematics performance after 20 years of majority spending on education in the national budget.

There’s the rosy policy picture and there’s the harsh reality.

So, what will such a conference realistically achieve for schools? Nothing, really. The primary goal behind these allegedly radical proposals is to position the ruling party ahead of the next elections.

Anyone who thinks there will be serious attention to progressive policy reforms that fundamentally alter the education prospects of the children in the poorest and most dysfunctional schools in South Africa has not been paying attention to the benign neglect of the sector over the past 20 years.

They would have been taken in by the distasteful parade of matriculation results on low standards with about half the children starting in Grade 1 failing to reach Grade 12.

What should be done as a priority to really shift the needle on education change in South Africa? Of all the things that need to be done, one can deliver immediate results.

Find a model of accountability (not inspection) that holds teachers as well as departments responsible for improvements in the learning experiences and outcomes of poor and working- class children. That means a political agreement with the majority teachers’ union with its outsized role in the election of the party president.

Stalemate, of course, and that is why policy and politics is the same word in French.

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