S. Africa's Black Students Fall Back in Test Scores

They study by smoky paraffin lamps in windblown township shacks and attend classes in decrepit buildings where girls are regularly raped, teachers are truant, and there are no textbooks. So it should come as no surprise that so many South African blacks fail to graduate from public school.

What is surprising is that scholastic results for blacks have worsened in the post-apartheid era. Results released this week show only 52.2 percent of seniors passed the national matriculation exam in 1997, down from 58.5 in 1996. The exams are a prerequisite for entrance to technical colleges and universities.

No one expected rapid improvement in scholastic results in these first three years of post-apartheid South Africa, in which black, white, and colored (mixed race) education systems are slowly being merged. But neither was the system expected to decline.

The African National Congress (ANC) has avoided radical changes in the economy. Instead, it has adopted the Asian model, which relies on a strong education system for long-term economic growth for the black majority. But the Bantu Education System it inherited, created in 1953, is drastically skewed in favor of whites.

The system was designed to deliberately undereducate blacks to ensure white businesses had a permanent pool of low-wage, unskilled labor. For every dollar spent on a black student, seven were spent on each white. Teacher training for blacks was also discouraged. School boycotts by black students and teachers in the 1980s further discouraged attendance.

'Not nice places to be'

Getting black students back into schools has proved a problem because, for the most part, conditions remain the same. As many as 80 children may be in a classroom, there is often no running water or working toilets, and gang warfare is rife. The best teachers, facilities, and student-teacher ratios are still in white and colored areas.

Black schools "are not nice places to be," comments education specialist Sandy Lazarus of the University of the Western Cape. An Education Ministry survey showed 51 percent of schools lack textbooks, and 57 percent have no electricity.

The class of 1997 "is the age group that has been most affected by apartheid education," says Mary Metcalfe, minister of education for the province of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg. "These students began their schooling in 1985 [at the height of student insurrection] and have not had the time to benefit from the greater stability that has begun to take root in our schools."

Bright spots

Added to the poor conditions inherited by the ANC is the turmoil caused by the process of transforming the system. Education Minister Sibusiso Bengu has told whites that redistributing resources means they will have to subsidize their better-quality schools. As a result, whites are quitting the public-school system. He has also introduced a new curriculum into South African schools in an attempt to deal with cultural differences in learning. The new approach is designed to discourage rote learning in favor of the acquisition of broader learning and life skills.

An attempt to integrate black teachers into colored and white schools caused chaos in school personnel offices and was canceled. Budget problems mean thousands of teachers face layoffs at a time when Mr. Bengu is trying to reduce the average primary class size to 35 students.

Not all the news for black schools is bad. For example, the Thandokhulo Secondary School in Mowbray, outside Cape Town, is one of a number that improved its scores. Its pass rate rose from 12 percent in 1994 to 70 percent this year. Principal Diane Moleko credits this success to motivated teachers who are given weekend training and who give extra classes to pupils on weekends. Additionally, parents are brought in to learn how to motivate their children to study.

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