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Rough ride to equality

ELUSIVE EQUITY: education reform in post-apartheid South Africa. By Edward B Fiske and Helen F Ladd. Brookings Institution Press pound;24

How much has changed for South African children in the 10 years since apartheid ended? Shereen Pandit finds some answers in a perceptive analysis

The new South Africa was born in its schools. Nearly 30 years ago, an uprising by the pupils of Soweto sparked the final phase of the struggle against apartheid, which culminated in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as president. Ten years after the ANC took power, vowing to create an equitable state education system, how much has really changed?

In this timely assessment, Edward Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, and Helen Ladd, public policy and economics professor at Duke University, in North Carolina, contend that while South Africa "has made significant progress toward equity in education defined as equal treatment of persons of all races", it has been "less successful in promoting equity, defined as either equal educational opportunity for students of all races or as educational adequacy".

The early chapters examine the social, economic and political heritage bequeathed by apartheid and look briefly at the struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in education.

The authors hold that the successes and failures of the ANC government's education policy and practice must be viewed in these contexts. Its success in achieving "colour blindness" (teachers and resources distributed without regard to race), as well its failure to achieve "educational adequacy", must be seen against the backdrop of the huge economic and other inequalities it inherited, as well as the struggle against apartheid education, which left an imprint on the future of schooling in South Africa by shaping the attitude of the masses to the state system.

Drawing on interviews with policy-makers and education practitioners (including headteachers), as well as administrative data, the writers examine how the government has set about meeting its stated goals of satisfying the population's educational needs and aspirations, to create a population "equipped to function as skilled workers and active citizens", arguing that the "country's capacity to develop policy far exceeded its capacity to implement it". They do not shy from pointing out that the legacy of apartheid is not solely to blame.

According to the authors, key aspects of the new educational policy involved ensuring 10 years of free and compulsory education for all, as well as "colour-blind" education. Implementation was hampered by political considerations, most importantly the compromises required from the ANC in the negotiated political settlement, such as the continued self-governance of white schools and their ability to charge fees.

"Through their fee, language and other policies, such schools were able to influence the mix of students they served. As a result, economic class appears to be replacing race as a determinant of who has access to the former model C (formerly white) schools." In other words, the correlation between class and colour under apartheid now ensures that ex-white schools continue to be predominantly white, with the black component provided mainly by middle-class black pupils, now living in ex-white areas, rather than poor black children from the townships.

Implementation policies also required major investment in education, to provide teachers, schools and materials, and to develop curricula relevant to the new South Africa and free from the constraints of the apartheid era.

There were, however, economic constraints on such investment.

The authors cite outcomes-based education as a reasonable approach, given the desire to replace "authoritarian values and top-down pedagogical approaches of the apartheid era" with "new values and teaching methods that emphasised democratic participation and the potential of every child to succeed". But they show that the success of outcomes-based education was limited by a several factors, not least of these being: teachers ill-equipped to adopt the new approach; a lack of human, financial and other resources needed to make the system work; and a failure to provide infrastructure such as libraries and media centres in the communities from which pupils were drawn.

Their summary of the economic reasons for the shortage of money is relatively free of the politicalsociologicaleconomic jargon and complexity usually employed to explain away, rather than account for, failures. This might lead to criticism that the book lacks analytical depth, but it is precisely what makes it so accessible to readers beyond academics.

Nonetheless, academics will find the book useful for its examination of an attempt to create a new education system to serve the needs of an entire country. Of value, too, are the insights into concepts such as outcomes-based education, the problems it throws up and the reasons for its success or failure.

Ordinary South Africans, especially those who participated in the struggle against apartheid education, will find this an important assessment of the progress made towards achieving their aims and of why the achievements have been limited to achieving "colour-blind", rather than truly equitable, education.

That generation cannot miss the irony that a struggle immortalised by the death of Hector Petersen in Soweto in 1976 has been restricted in its achievements by so many other deaths: of teachers from AidsHIV (3,000 are predicted for 2004). These deaths are not only devastating for the families involved but affect the entire population. This should not be ignored by "developed countries" that poach South Africa's sorely needed teachers instead of supplying the country with resources.

Of course, this consideration is not central to Fiske and Ladd's argument, but it is the raising of such issues, as well as the provision of wider insights into the functioning of the education system in South Africa, that make this book a valuable addition to the shelves of anyone interested in education or South Africa, or both.

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