I would like to relate a true story. Bear with me, the relevance of the story to current conversations will be explained.
When school segregation was abolished in
In the area where we lived, the head teachers’ association introduced a scheme whereby schools with an affluent intake each adopted one or more struggling schools in the region.
The school where my son had just started adopted one such school in the wine-farming area nearby. As a member of the Mothers’
We arrived at the school on a cold, clear winter’s morning. The school consisted of a row of three rooms which opened out onto a covered walkway. The children were just arriving at school. As they arrived, they formed a queue. Many were barefoot. Very few carried a school bag or books of any description. Two teachers stood beside the walkway, handing out a peanut butter sandwich to each child. Most of the children had not eaten since lunch the previous day (more about that later).
Once they had eaten, the children set about cleaning the school. There was a lot of sweeping to be done: the school grounds were eroded dirt, the classroom doors ill fitting and some of the windows were broken.
All this done, teaching could finally begin. We followed the head teacher to his class. We asked him where his office was. Where the staffroom was. Neither of these existed. Besides, he told us, there would never be time to use them – teachers were classroom facing at every moment, including lunch breaks. He kept student records in his wardrobe at home.
The classrooms were cold and draughty. There were 45-60 children per class. Many were sitting two-to-a-desk. The teaching followed strictly behaviourist principles, with lots of call-and-response. With no text books and precious few learning materials, it was hard to think of alternative approaches.
At lunch time, a large plastic drum (like a garbage bin) full of a curious liquid was produced and the children were each given a cup full of this, with a slice of bread. The explanation for this stretched my credulity almost to breaking point. The government had identified that few of the children in the poorer schools could afford lunch and had introduced a feeding scheme. Schools were provided with soup and a budget for bread and peanut butter. The soup was provided in powder form by the farm-feed-sized sackful. What the government in its wisdom had neglected to consider was that the schools did not have kitchens. The only running water they had was a tap outside the little outhouses that served as toilet facilities. Heating up water for soup for 200 children took a long time, a large vessel, and a source of heat. The school had none of these things, nor did it have the staff to oversee the heating process, even it had. So the children were given a concoction of soup powder and cold water. Because the soup powder tended to float on the top of the water, the children in the front of the queue got better nutrition than those at the back. There was a strict rota for queue positions. Sadly, most children would get no evening meal at home.
The intention behind our involvement was for us to source stationery supplies for the school, since pens and paper were in short supply. We secured suppliers for these items, but, as you can imagine, we had identified a whole host of other things that were needed. We moved heaven and earth to provide as many of them as we could. This post is already far too long, so I won’t detail them.
What I will say, however, is that, while we are debating whether or not to continue using printed text books in our comfortable first world, there are teachers in schools where there is no alternative to text books – and I think they may well be in the majority. Many of them have never seen a computer and there is no electricity to run one, even if they had. The text books they do have are in short supply, outdated and in poor repair. We took some of our surplus text books to that school and the teachers wept, while the children sang, danced and clapped their thanks to us. “Die tannies het boeke gebring, julle!” (the aunties have brought books, you lot!). That moment changed me.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will have noticed that I regularly try to speak up for the third world teachers. They have no voice in this space, and I am a poor excuse of an ambassador for their cause. But before we declare a moratorium on books, let’s just think about what the consequent increase in production costs will do to schools already struggling for a resource we have come to regard as passé.
If you've stuck with me up to this point, thanks for your patience - I apologise for the long post and for what may seem to be a bleeding heart moment, but it is an issue that is dear to me.