“How do people rise out of poverty into middle class? Through education.”

Interview with James Urdang
Photo: Jacobs Foundation

James Urdang of Education Africa discusses reforming education in South Africa, one step at a time.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Why did you get involved with early childhood development (ECD)?

James Urdang: In many places in South Africa, children at age seven are not school-ready. They are not numerate, and they are illiterate to the point where they don’t know the alphabet. You can put colors up on a wall in the school that they’ve seen every single day of their lives, and they can’t name them. Without the essential building blocks at ECD level, these children will find it difficult to cope with the formal schooling system.

We’ve got a lot of passionate women in this country who care deeply about the well-being and development of children, and a lot of these women run day care centers for babies right up to the age of six. With our NPO, Education Africa, we empower and educate these women to turn their day care centers into preschools and help them get kids school-ready. They participate in our formal ECD program, and they get proper certification. When you visit their schools, you wouldn’t believe the difference from before and after.

ECD intervention is essential to build a sound basis for learning. As long as children aren’t school-ready, they’re going to be a bigger burden on the school system and ultimately on society as a whole.

CSG: What happens to the kids who are properly prepared? Do they have a better chance, or do they stumble because of unqualified teachers?

JU: Obviously, the kids that go to the good schools or the old government “white schools” are going to have a great chance.

The sad thing for me is that education in South Africa is still about beating the system. People who got a good education under the Apartheid regime were those who managed to beat the system—and that’s still the case today.

There is only a fair amount of good schools in our country, but 9.5 million of the 13 million schoolchildren are on food subsidies. They come to school for their meal. How many of those 9.5 million are going to make it through?

CSG: You’ve been working on educational reform in South Africa since the fall of Apartheid. How much has changed in that time?

JU: I believe that education is the single most important component necessary for South Africans not only to become a true rainbow nation; but most importantly, a rainbow nation that is capable of becoming a player on the world economic stage. That would be the ideal, but it’s not an easy task to undo the damage that was caused under Apartheid.

“As long as children aren’t school-ready, they’re going to be a bigger burden on the school system and ultimately on society as a whole.”

Under the Bantu Education Act, a black child wasn’t allowed to learn math and science, and therefore there were no teachers who were qualified to teach those subjects. Instead, emphasis was placed upon teaching vernacular languages, Afrikaans, religious studies and agricultural science.

This left an education system for black South Africans that would not empower them with opportunities for the world of work. They were forced to be stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Unfortunately, 24 years after democracy, its legacy still impacts teaching: The number of teachers who are qualified to teach math and science is still appallingly low, and this has hindered the development of our country.

We are now a democracy that should be providing all South African children access to quality education, but this is very difficult because many of the teachers are still from the Apartheid era and the new generation of teachers didn’t grow up learning math and science, so how can they be expected to teach these subjects? It is going to take another generation at least to balance the scales, and a great deal of commitment from government to encourage and support a culture of excellence when it comes to teaching.

CSG: What’s happened to the post-Apartheid generation?

JU: After 1994, the white government schools opened to black students. That’s a good thing, but a drop in the ocean. Unfortunately, the majority of those learners were at a disadvantage because they didn’t have the right teaching from the start, so they found it incredibly difficult to catch up.

“Half the kids have dropped out of school: where are they?”

As an example, using simple numbers: We’ve got 1.2 million children who enter the school system every year. However, only about 600,000 students will write their final grade 12 examinations. Half the kids have therefore dropped out of school: where are they?

Looking at math and science, about 30,000 students pass grade 12 at a level which is good enough to study those subjects further at tertiary education level. That’s one of the lowest pass rates in the world, per capita. That is a legacy of Apartheid. And the unfortunate reality is the majority of those who will go on to study math and science will end up in the commercial sector, and not in the education sector. So the cycle of not having a pool of good quality teachers to teach empowerment subjects continues.

CSG: Is it simply a matter of time until you have a new generation of better-trained teachers?

JU: Not just that –  something’s got to be done to improve access to education. Technology is going to play a huge role in our country and elsewhere. Education Africa offers two certificate programs at the University of South Africa and is doing a pilot with scholarship students. We give them tablets and data; they download their workbooks and upload their completed assignments; and we have a phone room set up in our office so we can mentor the students.

“These are kids who haven’t had much educational opportunity, and now we’re taking the opportunities to them.”

In this way, through technology, we can reach students from all areas of the country, from rural areas through to the townships. And these students are surpassing all expectations! Assignment results indicate that we will have an extremely high pass rate. These are kids who haven’t had much educational opportunity, and now we’re taking the opportunities to them.

It’s a rigorous one-year certificate program, which is an advantage, since you can find students who have potential. The standards are the same as with a two- or three-year diploma. It’s a bridge that’s needed: they can go on to study further, or find a good job having the first step toward lifelong learning that they can build on.

How do you bring people into the economy? It’s through education. How do people rise out of poverty into the middle class? Education.

James Urdang is CEO and Founder of Education Africa, an organization in South Africa focused on breaking the cycle of poverty through educational interventions from pre-primary schooling through to tertiary educational levels. He is one of the ten recipients of the 2018 Klaus J. Jacobs Awards which is bestowed to social innovators and change makers in the field of child and youth development.

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