Rashly, admittedly, I once suggested to a bemused colleague that if she wanted to live in a leafy suburb she could begin by planting trees.

I do have a thing about trees – and I have made a hobby of growing indigenous ones from seed – but I also know it’s not as simple as that.

What’s not in doubt is the significance of a middle-class suburban existence in shaping the condition, and the prospects, of every modern society.

This much was emphasised in the final line of a substantial article last week on the 2019 matric results. Journalist Katharine Child wrote: ‘And so, 25 years after the end of apartheid, it remains the case that your chances of success are largely circumstantial: if you want a quality senior certificate pass, you want to be a white female living in a middle class suburb.’

Suburbs are not universally loved.

In an edited extract from Suburban Urbanities, Suburbs and the Life of the High Street, Laura Vaughan, Professor of Urban Form and Society at the University College London, notes: ‘Suburbia is all too frequently despised and easily patronized. Critics maintain that suburbs lead to alienation; that they are homogenous breeding grounds for apathy.’ Yet, she goes on, ‘suburbia is nonetheless the place many people aspire to live’.

In South Africa, the reason why the same is true is crisply captured in Child’s article on education outcomes.

Just as learning is an assured gateway to a better life, so access to the suburbs is an assured gateway to better schooling.

It is no mystery, then, why most South Africans rate jobs and education as the government’s key priorities.

But the harsh truth is that 25 years of the African National Congress’s ‘transformation’ agenda have failed in meeting the pressing need, and the desire, for economic growth and for better schooling.

As my colleague, head of policy research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) Dr Anthea Jeffery, wrote recently: ‘Faster growth, higher productivity, increased output, and more innovation can only come with urgent improvements to South Africa’s schooling system.’

The scale of the crisis is evident from Katharine Child’s citation of ‘research [that] points to the fact that fee-paying schools produce the kind of matric passes that lead to successful professional qualifications’.

She quotes research by education economist Nic Spaull showing that just 200 schools, 175 of which charge ‘significant’ fees, produced almost all mathematics distinctions in 2018. Spaull had written: ‘In 2018, the top 200 high schools in the country had more students in matric achieving distinctions in mathematics (80%+) than the remaining 6,600 combined. Put differently 3% of SA high schools produce more mathematics distinctions than the remaining 97% put together.’

Child cites Stellenbosch research showing that ‘a pupil with an 80% matric average has an 80% chance of finishing university within six years. An average of 60% means a 65% chance of completing a degree, and a 50% pass equates to a chance of just 50%.’

This is the reality obscured by the government’s exultant but misplaced celebration of the latest ‘record’ 81.3% matric pass rate.

It is increasingly obvious that the race-based edicts brought to bear on suburban schools – and suburban residents – in the name of ‘transformation’ and ‘empowerment’ have done little to help the very people they are avowedly intended to benefit, while hindering those striving to expand the pockets of success that remain.

Tellingly, the ‘standout trend’ for Spaull is the ‘across-the-board decline in the number of students taking and passing maths. There is an 11% decline nationally.’ He calculates that 14 500 fewer pupils passed maths, ‘meaning 14 500 fewer can study engineering, commerce, law, medicine and science’.

The IRR has long argued that a good maths pass in matric is a key marker in determining access to the middle class. A 2019 report by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the IRR went as far as warning: ‘While maths education is poor across the board, the quality is worse in the poorest quintile of schools, leaving no doubt that school education is replicating trends of poverty and inequality in our society.’

The key, in the IRR’s view, is to free education from the meddling of bureaucrats and politicians and give parents greater choice – the choices available to suburban parents. The desire for choice is borne out by the growth of independent schools – which have doubled since 2000 to number roughly 1 995 today, many of which offer relatively low-cost options.

As Dr Jeffery – author of the IRR’s Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED) model – has argued: ‘The capacity to choose schools in this way is currently confined to the middle class. Yet poor parents could be given the same choice by redirecting much of the present schooling budget (some R260bn) into tax-funded school vouchers to be provided to all parents below a certain income level.’

Jeffery points out that the vouchers, a central feature of EED, would give parents ‘real choices as to the schools they would like their children to attend’.

‘Some might choose those public schools that already perform well. Others might opt for the collaboration model, as developed in the Western Cape. Some would decide to send their children to private schools run by entrepreneurs, such as Spark schools. Others might prefer private schools run by religious institutions or non-governmental organisations (NGOs).’

She goes on: ‘Some persistently bad public schools would effectively be abandoned and so forced to shut down. Their buildings could then be auctioned to Spark or other organisations, which would refurbish them before re-opening them again. However, most of the state schools which are currently dysfunctional would improve their performance under the pressure to up their game.’

The effects, overall, would be genuinely transformative.

Planting trees is assuredly not enough to create a leafy suburb, but, not unlike nurturing a Podocarpus latifolius or Apodytes dimidiata to life, there are no short-cuts to creating the right conditions to germinate the seed, and foster the sapling.

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