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What is being offered as schooling in rural South Africa is not nearly good enough and we need to stand together as communities to create something better; create community schools that produce top-achieving learners based on a culture of learning and teaching.

We are currently hearing a great deal about how the culture of performance, honesty and professionalism in our state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and organisations like the South African Revenue Service (Sars) was destroyed by State Capture and corruption. And that in addition to sorting out the infrastructure, systems, staffing and governance issues, it is going to take time to restore the culture.

The same applies to our schooling system.

It will take a concerted, long-term community-wide vision to restore the culture of learning and teaching in our country as part of addressing the dire state of basic education, particularly in mathematics and science. If you want to destroy a nation you should attack its education system and if you want to defend your nation you should have a strong culture of education, especially in mathematics and science.

We can go back in time to illustrate the strong culture of learning and teaching that existed in our part of the world over a thousand years ago, in expansive civilisations like the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela. There were economists, traders, technologists, goldsmiths and miners and it was part of the culture to pass on knowledge from generation to generation, from learned person to young person.

Then follow the timeline all the way to current-day Vhembe in Limpopo where we see consistently excellent matric results in a handful of rural schools in the rural Vhembe district. This has extended into higher education and the region has produced a wealth of scientists, academics, engineers, educators, doctors, lawyers, technicians, politicians, innovators and entrepreneurs. Many of the school educators in the Vhembe district are pursuing doctor­ates in the subjects they teach.

The schools there have retained a strong culture of learning and teaching, including in science and maths. This dates back to their historic inheritance but more recently to the 1920s when the first community-controlled school in Venda was built in 1920 by Domba initiate girls. The girls made the mud bricks for the construction of their community school, called Camp School, where both girls and boys could practise their traditional culture and at the same time receive a good education. Camp School was built as an alternative to the missionary schools, which required con­version to Christianity and denunciation of “heathen” traditional culture. The school pioneered what we now call decolonised education, where formal school­ing and traditional culture were considered mutually inclusive.

The school grew into a system of primary, junior and high schools. Of great significance is that these community schools were the only schools in Venda during this period to offer a science-based curriculum, which included maths, and this nurtured a culture of achieving in these subjects. The schools were also strongly supported by the chiefs, parents and teachers, and the whole community was invested in a culture of education and achievement, exemplifying the adage that it takes a village to raise and educate a child. Other parts of South Africa have different versions of stories like this.

The period after 1955 saw the gradual takeover of community schools by the apartheid government in a calculated and sys­tematic attempt to undermine the culture of education and to make people feel they were less intelligent and incapable of running community schools and achieving in maths and science or pursuing university studies.

In places like Vhembe, however, the chiefs, parents and educators con­tinued to nurture the culture of learning and teaching, including emphasising the impor­tance of studying maths and science, and this has survived in these communities. But they are far too few and far between in a country like ours. The question we, therefore, need to ask is whether our chiefs and leaders today are still supporting a culture of education or have they lost it?

What is being offered as schooling is not nearly good enough and we need to once again stand together as communities to create something better; create community schools that produce top-achieving learners based on a culture of learning and teaching. We need to learn from successful community schooling systems in places like Vhembe and among a couple of schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro and rural Eastern Cape which partner with Nelson Mandela University’s Centre for the Community School (CCS) in the Faculty of Education.

Since 2011 the CCS has initiated school improvement programmes with 25 schools (primary and secondary) in the Eastern Cape to strengthen and support the work of schools in working-class communities faced with severe socio-economic challenges. The CCS’s approach is that it’s critical to move away from the notion of getting schools “back to the way they were ” and instead to imagine new ways of redefining school success and functionality.

As part of this, NMU’s Faculty of Science, together with the Faculty of Education and CCS, is working hard to make maths and science accessible again. We visit and host maths and science exhibitions, workshops and expos, and encourage parents and communities to take an active interest in the children’s education.

In partnership with the Faculty of Educa­tion and professional bodies such as the South African Institute of Physics (Saip) we coordinate maths and science teacher devel­opment programmes in the Eastern Cape to advance their skills in teaching these subjects. We can already see the results in the province’s improved matric results.

As an ambassador for the Teacher Development and the Outreach & Public Understanding of Physics Projects of the Saip, I strongly believe that professional bodies should play a significant role in creating a culture of learning and teaching in South African schools. Saip is a living example through its national Physics Teacher Development Project and Outreach Programme in maths and physical science, focusing on the rural areas of South Africa.

As the Faculty of Science we collaborate in maths and science programmes with several schools in the distant rural areas, including Cala and Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape; Thembalethu in the Southern Cape; and with schools in the Vhembe district. All these schools are producing strong results because the learners, parents, community and education officials are working together as a team. NMU is keen to extend this to other provinces where we find communities and leaders who are hungry and willing to partner with us.

Universities need to be engaged in building and nurturing the culture of learning and teaching in our communities from the earliest age because this is our knowledge pipeline. At the same time, we need a seismic shift in the national and provincial education policy.

It calls for a policy that enables a new model for learning and teaching in the service of society, a model that recognises and nurtures every learner’s potential to achieve and thrive in subjects like maths and science, instead of continuously lowering the pass rates. The consequence of the latter is a nation that will not be able to solve grand societal challenges such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, health, security and environmental conservation.

I also urge graduates and professionals who grew up in rural communities to support community schools. Many of us still call our rural communities home and we will be buried there. We need to help to rebuild a culture of achievement in these communities, and to share scarce skills.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has said that over 3,000 schools in villages and townships throughout South Africa face closure and that many of the schools are not sustainable due to low numbers.

The low number is partly due to the migration to cities and urban areas, but it is also mainly due to the drop in standards and disintegration of the culture of education. Far too many children do not complete their schooling and parents who are focused on education send their children to better schools elsewhere.

We need to take back our schools and be accountable and hopefully, we have a government that cares and that can come together with our communities to play its very important role in developing a culture of education that in this digitalised world includes 21st century technology.

Next year we will be celebrating 100 years of the birth of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) with celebrations around the world. The theme of these events will be 100 Years of Physics in Africa — looking at the past, the present and the future. We will be joining the South Africa Institute of Physics (Saip) and other institutions in South Africa and the SADC region in putting the spotlight on the link between the basic sciences and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in meeting crucial local and global challenges.

Front of mind is SDG 4: to ensure inclusive and quality education for all, females and males, and to promote lifelong learning. What better time is there to commit to this goal that is in effect a culture that brings us all together: the culture of education. DM

This article appeared in The Daily Maverick on 12 November 2021, written by Prof Azwinndini Muronga, a theoretical physicist and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University.

 School pupils walk home from school in KwaZulu-Natal on Wednesday, 07 July 2021.

(Photo: Leila Dougan)

Contact information
Prof Azwinndini Muronga
Executive Dean: Faculty of Science