S. Africa starts with preschools to upgrade black education

With hands clapping and feet stomping, 100 black children in bright red smocks dance across the classroom singing in chorus: ''We are cutting the wheat, this is the time for reaping.''

These 5-year-olds from a Soweto preschool are at the portal of a changing system of education for blacks in South Africa. They may be among the first generation of blacks to find conditions improving slowly but steadily as they progress through this country's black public schools.

They will probably experience better-qualified teachers and more of them, as well as increasingly modern classrooms, educational experts say. But during their school years they almost certainly will not find their education equal to that enjoyed by South Africa's whites, these experts add. And they will not, the government insists, find themselves seated next to whites in integrated public schools.

Such is the educational balance sheet for South Africa's urban blacks just over six years after deep frustration with inferior education helped spark riots in Soweto.

In the past half-dozen years, the South African government has poured money into Soweto, building schools, training black teachers, and raising instructors' salaries.

But these changes often meet a lukewarm response from blacks because the educational system remains strictly segregated. In the eyes of many blacks, racial separation in schools is a formula for continuing inequality.

The children at this Soweto preschool are the latest recipients of the changing school conditions for blacks. They are enrolled in the first preschool program for blacks ever sponsored by the Nationalist government.

The aim is to reduce the alarmingly high failure rate among blacks by providing the kind of high-quality preschooling whites have enjoyed for many years. The growing need of the South African economy for skilled black labor is a prime motivator behind the government's push to upgrade black education.

The government's new program offers an annual subsidy of about $87 per pupil to preschools that register with the government.

The Emma Brosius School in Soweto was one of the first to sign up. The school building is old and sits at the elbow of a rutted dirt road overlooking open fields where goats graze.

But the activity within the building is energetic and stimulating. School principal Baile Motomapeso says her philosophy is to help the children ''learn through play.'' During a ''concept formation'' session the children learn the difference between ''hard'' and ''soft'' by pounding on the floor and then squeezing a pillow passed among them.

Joey Van Wyk, head of the new preschool program for the government's Department of Education and Training, estimates there are about 52 black preprimary schools in South Africa. To date 19 have registered with the Department of Education and Training and agreed to use the education program it prescribes in order to receive the government subsidy.

However, like all other educational programs introduced by the white government, this preschool effort is encountering some resistance. ''Although we have plenty of funds to subsidize more schools, they are reluctant to register with the government,'' Mrs. Van Wyk says. She says the program must overcome blacks' ''suspicions'' of the program by trying to involve them as much as possible in designing the content of the educational program.

Mrs. Van Wyk is submitting stories to be used in the program to a panel of black preschool teachers who have the authority to select some stories and reject others. Overall, the government's efforts to improve black education are showing signs of achievement - albeit within a framework many blacks reject.

Dr. A. Roukens De Lange, a computer modeling specialist at the University of the Witwatersrand, has concluded in a detailed forecasting analysis of black education that the quality of education at the primary level has begun to improve over the past decade.

In analyzing factors such as government spending on education for black children, teacher qualifications, and classroom student-teacher ratios he says it is evident that the government's thinking on black education changed in 1970 and was further prodded toward improvements following the 1976 Soweto disturbances.

An important finding of the study is the tremendous time lapse before intentions achieve results in the field of education. Dr. De Lange says it appears to take 10 to 15 years before policy changes actually alter the prevailing trends in education.

The time lag is evident in secondary education for blacks. Despite more government spending per secondary-school pupil the overall quality of education is continuing to deteriorate, according to Dr. De Lange's study.

By his projection, secondary education for blacks is still worsening rapidly and will reach a turning point only in 1985.

Although the quality of black education at all levels will be uniformly improving during the latter half of this decade, it will remain far below that enjoyed by whites, according to Dr. De Lange.

''There has been a large increase in expenditures per capita on blacks, but it is still a long way below whites,'' he says.

The only way to achieve equality by the year 2020, he says, would be to make education South Africa's No. 1 goal, even ahead of national defense.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.