China will eat your lunch… guaranteed!

The more I interact with students at the university, something becomes increasingly (and disturbingly) obvious: China will eat South Africa’s lunch and have it too. If you wonder what the hell I’m talking about, then consider this.

A few weeks ago two Chinese teenagers committed suicide after failing to complete their homework during a three-day-long holiday. They knew such failure was not an option and would not be tolerated. They knew they would be disciplined and punished. It was an unbearable prospect. On 15 May 2013, Michelle FlorCruz of International Business Times reported that in the Henan province, the intense pressure to excel in school lead a high school student to chose death over life, however, not for himself but for his father. He hired a hitman over the Internet to assassinate his 49-year-old father. These are extremes. But the point is clear: Death is the extent of the seriousness with which the Chinese regard their education.

Apparently these are not isolated cases but societal trends and behavioural patterns vis-a-vis education in China. In other words, these deaths are features of the organizational dynamic of China’s education system, which includes the central government, provincial governments, municipal governments, schools, universities, towns, villages, families and students. Chinese obsessive compulsion with education is world-renown. Schools are the most treasured national assets, whether in the big cities or in rural areas. As a matter of fact, according to a BBC report,  school buildings are the most elegant and impressive landmarks in rural China. At the same time, China’s suicide rate is among the world’s highest, and it is remarkable that suicide is the cause of death among people between 15 and 34, most of whom are  students. In  his article “Pressure leaves millions of youth exposed to suicide risk”, Wang Hongyi writes:

Every year, roughly 250,000 people commit suicide in China, while another 2 million attempt to cut their lives short, according to the Ministry of Health. Although studies show the highest incidence is among elderly and rural women, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention says suicide is now the top cause of death for people aged 15 to 34…. “The problem among young people has to do with education and family environment…” 

A few years ago, a survey by the Chinese Youth and Children Research Center has shown that pupils in China spend between 8 to 12 hours in the classroom. This is more than American and Japanese children spend in the classroom. In fact, GB Times reports that on average Chinese students spend 12 hours daily on schoolwork for high schools; 10 hours for middle schools; 8.5 hours for technical schools; and 7 hours for primary schools. Keep in mind the home work can be as unbearable as to drive some students to chose death over life. Feel free to guess the number of hours Chinese teachers spend in the classrooms. When these teenagers finish primary and secondary school, they are already habituated into a rigorous and punishing work ethic. After this, they are not done yet. There’s university to attend, four more years to reinforce the work ethic. I’ll let you guess how much time university students in China spend studying.

And that’s not the end of the story.

According to World University News, plans are under way to reform the Chinese tertiary education system. The government believes university education is not good enough, even though students compete to get a university admission. In case you didn’t know, in China you don’t just walk into the university to register because you think it’s your right. Hell no, you don’t! No such thing as inalienable right to university education. In China you earn the privilege to get an admission to university. Students have to compete in the famous and infamous Gaokao university-entrance exams. The name itself is telling: Gaokao means high test. Students spend months preparing for Gaokao exams. These exams are written over two days, covering mathematics, sciences, Chinese and foreign languages. As if this were not enough, plans are underway in Beijing to include physical fitness exams in the Gaokao. If this happens, it will mean you can’t overeat and be a fat couch potato and think you have the right to university education. To learn more about the grind of Gaokao, check out “Gaokao Highway to Hell”.

Now to South Africa with China in mind.

We have heard of corruption and mismanagement in Limpopo and Eastern Cape provincial education departments. In Limpopo, the provincial department of education failed abysmally even the simple and mindless task of delivering books to schools, prompting the central government to step in to manage the problem. The situation is hardly resolved.  This week, the last of July 2013, the Kwa-Zulu Natal provincial department of education released a statement informing the public that school textbooks have been found shredded and burned in a warehouse. The textbooks were to have been delivered in March. The contractor failed to do so. Instead, the future for these kids was shredded and burned. The money was pocketed. Will anyone be punished? Will the teachers’ union call for a protest against this? Let’s wait and see. While China punished kids who don’t don’t finish their homework, South Africa has so far failed to punish failure to deliver textbooks in schools.

The education problem in the Eastern Cape Province is now considered a festering epidemic. Kids in rural and remote areas are left to their own devices. These kids spend their short lives in tin-house classrooms. Freezers in the winter, ovens in the summer, these tin-house classrooms are horrific. Kids are successively frozen and roasted alive all year round. There are no adequate teachers. Due to demographic changes, the distribution of teachers is such an anomaly. There are indications that the province has a fictitious excess of 7000 teachers. Which doesn’t make sense because there are schools without teachers. Backed by the union, teachers refuse to transfer to schools with kids to teach so they stay in schools without kids to teach. Thousands of teaching posts are left vacant indeterminately. Who cares? Get paid doing nothing. It’s freedom time. “It’s my right!” Sanitation is a serious problem here. Going to toilet is a hazard for these kids, at such a young age. The old apartheid infrastructure has degenerated into ruins through years of neglect, made worse by the fact that many apartheid school buildings were not designed to house human beings in the first place. See Annette Lovermore’s article Eastern Cape’s Education Crisis Still Festering Sore.

Lately South Africa has fared quite poorly on world education rankings. If ever there were doubts about this, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study has nailed them in the coffin. According to the study:

  • Forty-three percent of South African Grade 5 learners have not developed the basic reading skills required for reading at an equivalent international Grade 4 level. Fewer learners attained the highest international benchmarks than in 2006.
  • Twenty-nine percent of Grade 4 learners do not have the rudimentary reading skills required for reading at an equivalent international Grade 2 level.
  • Girls out-perform boys in Grade 4 and Grade 5 in South Africa and in Grade 4 internationally.
  • More South African Grade 5 learners tested in Afrikaans or English reached the highest international benchmark in contrast to Grade 4 children in 13 other countries (including Morocco, Indonesia, Oman, Norway, Belgium and Colombia).
  • More than half of learners tested in Sepedi and Tshivenda are at risk, with 57% of Sepedi learners not reaching the lowest international benchmarks.
  • Rural and township learners are, on average, two to two and a half years behind urban children in reading ability.
  • More than half (59%)of South African schools have no libraries, which is the second highest percentage internationally after Morocco.
  • More than half (55%)of Grade 4 learners report frequent bullying at primary school, the highest internationally.

One thing I fail to understand in South Africa is the idea of 30% as a passing mark. That’s right. Kids in South Africa only need 30% to pass from one grade to the next. To hell with the other 70%. No, this is not a joke. How can a fail be a pass? The last time I checked, in the rest of the world 30% is a guaranteed fail. Meanwhile in China the minimum mark required to pass is 60%. Anything below this counts as fail.

Now ask yourself, if 30% is all that is required to pass, any wonder why nearly half of math teachers have poor math literacy? How are they expected to teach what they barely know? This is also not a joke. In 2012, the National Evaluation Unit assessed the literacy skills of math teachers. The resulting report entitled The State of Literacy Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Phase makes disturbing revelations:

The subject knowledge base in both language and mathematics of the majority of South African Grade 6 teachers is inadequate to provide learners with a principled understanding of these foundation disciplines…. There is no reason to believe that Foundation phase teachers are any better endowed with subject knowledge.

In his commentary Teachers Must Be Tested, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Free State Jonathan Jansen described this outcome bluntly: “If you went to school at all, solving this math problem will be a stroll in the park: 10 x 2 + (6 – 4) ÷ 2 = ? Yet almost half of South African teachers in a recent study got this wrong and, unsurprisingly, only 22% of learners got the problem right.” In a country where 30% is a pass, should this surprise anyone? This is a dilemma. How does society tell its teachers that they lack skills and knowledge to teach? As Jansen points out:

… how do you tell a teacher with papers (certificates) they do not know enough maths even for the grade level at which they teach? How do you tell a teacher he or she should be tested for subject matter knowledge despite the paperwork in hand? How do you get past unions that insist their paying members must be assumed to be competent and not subjected to the humiliation of being tested for things in which they were trained?

So much for being part of the Brics.

The evidence is overwhelming. The verdict is clear. China will eat your lunch. That’s guaranteed. Unless the South African government takes decisive and bold measures to address this problem.

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