Education: More a bulldozer than a great leveller

When you’re struggling financially, you are unlikely to storm up to the principal’s office and demand a competent mathematics teacher, especially when you can't afford the school fees.

When you’re struggling financially, you are unlikely to storm up to the principal’s office and demand a competent mathematics teacher, especially when you can’t afford the school fees. 
Image: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

Anxious parents have been calling a lot recently. The child is in Grade 7 and waiting to hear from the schools s/he applied to for the first year of high school. Or the young adolescent is in Grade 12 and it is not clear whether s/he will be accepted to the universities applied to. The reason? The June examination results do not look too good and could scupper chances of admission to a favoured school or university.

These transitions are always difficult but especially for children from struggling families. And it is especially hard when the reason for the poor June results − the single most important factor in whether or not you access a good institution − is the teacher.

I listened carefully to sometimes very emotional parents these past weeks and I could not help but share their distress. The stories go something like this. Mr Hatchett is not qualified to teach high school mathematics − “he told us himself” − but nobody else was available so the principal insisted the teacher help out.

This happens often in our country and in cases where parents pay north of R80,000 for tuition, they do two things − they raise hell at the school which normally can afford to hire a specialist maths teacher while Ms Weatherbottom is on maternity leave; and they hire expensive tutors for after-school maths tutoring.

But when you’re struggling financially, you first of all cannot afford to pay those kinds of fees or expensive tutors, and you are also unlikely to storm into the principal’s office and demand a competent mathematics teacher. Even if you did, the school leadership will shrug its shoulders and say: “There is nothing we can do”, or: “We brought it to the attention of the department but there has been no response” or, worse: “Mr Hatchett is really trying his best under the circumstances.”

This is how schools reproduce inequality and why more and more researchers are coming to the conclusion that education is not the great leveller many believe that gives equal opportunity to those at the bottom of the system. This simple example shows how privilege sustains itself and how poverty scrambles for a seat at the education table.

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