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South Africa: Inequality that merits hard thinking

IBM, the computer multinational that once had the motto "I think", is helping unpick a system that forced black children to do exactly the opposite.

Under South Africa's apartheid regime there was a statutory neglect of homeland schools and the pernicious "Bantu education policy" led to massive inequality between black and white.

Instruments of the state were designed to ensure that no black person should ever be educated to a level where they could become more than a menial labourer.

Apartheid education policies made a particular effort to keep black students away from science and technology.

In 1953 HF Verwoerd, the architect of Grande Apartheid, said in Parliament that there was no need to teach a Bantu child science and mathematics because the government would not allow him to use it.

Now, Reach and Teach, a non-profit-making organisation part-funded by IBM,is starting to build a curriculum for students which harnesses the potential of technology. It aims to put computers, vocational education and teacher training at the heart of developments in schools.

Reach and Teach operates in the Northern Territories - a province declared an "educational disaster area" by deputy president Thabo Mbek last year.

"To redress this disaster we have to be even more sophisticated than the perpetrators who conjured up this inhuman tapestry," said Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, the head of education in the province. The legacy of apartheid - overcrowded classrooms, few resources and a history of under-investment - has left many black students with little chance of developing the skills needed to move on to higher education.

Education technology is now seen as a lever to raise status, change learning methods and allow access to a range of resources.

Matriculation at 16 is the benchmark qualification in South Africa, separating those who will proceed further in education from those who leave school unqualified to find work. There are 126,00 failed matriculants in the Northern Territories.

Reach and Teach has worked with the government and other agencies to provide 175 finishing schools so that failed matriculants can be moved out of the overcrowded secondary system.

At the finishing schools, run by specially trained teachers, the teenagers work together in small groups. They all have access to computers.

Twelve centres have also been been set up so pupils can learn the normal curriculum with help from state-of-the-art information technology.

As the backlog of matriculants declines, the aim is to turn these finishing schools into competency centres for maths, science, technology and English.

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