When Education Fails Who Should Take The Blame?

By Rodney Mazinter
First published in The Atlantic Sun

Nations have recently been led to borrow billions for war; no nation has ever borrowed largely for education. Probably, no nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilisation. We must make our choice; we cannot have both.”

Abraham Flexner, educator (1866-1959) 

There has been much in the media of late about education, particularly the announcement that the Western Cape Provincial Council, in an attempt to turn around the high failure rate in the province, is preparing to introduce legislation requiring teachers and principals to sign a performance agreement.

While it is true that schools that set out to provide a good education must be blessed with excellent teachers, the department’s announcement falls short of what a good education is and who is responsible for providing it. While the poor teacher once again must bear the brunt of the criticism, it actually lets parents off the hook and allows them to find someone else to blame when their child fails to achieve to its best potential.

There is a misguided belief that a child’s education begins when he or she starts school. How much influence can any teacher really have, particularly as they are not around in the infant years, a period of vital preparation for learning? The first six years of a child’s life, apart from a small amount of not compulsory playschool or kindergarten time, is spent exclusively in a home environment at a time when the greatest human intellectual growth occurs. At no other time in our lives does the brain’s capacity to learn and acquire knowledge show such an amazing facility. In our first four years we learn a new language to an extent that we can carry on an intelligent conversation inhibited only by our lack of experience. When else in our lives can we point to such a remarkable achievement?

Nature has given us a brain that needs to be prepared for learning and this is as important to our success and survival as it is for a baby antelope to learn to walk and run within hours of its birth. But the mother antelope and its baby rely on instinct. How are we parents prepared for such a momentous responsibility? It seems that we must rely on love and, more importantly, the culture in our families and communities. Child education is certainly not taught as a subject in school.

We all want our children to succeed and are too quick to blame the system when they stumble. When they begin in grade one, we anxiously await the first report card. How intellectually ready are they for school? A moment’s reflection will confirm, however, that the parent is the child’s first, and most important teacher. It is surely logical that mom and dad must bear some responsibility for little Johnny and Mary’s academic performance.

Actually, if we are honest with ourselves, that first report card is not a reflection on Johnny and Mary, but on what kind of job we as parents have made of preparing our children for a formal education. It is a report card on us and our jobs as their first and only teachers; on how we have taken advantage of the miracle of intellectual growth in the early years.

For example, what importance is placed on books and reading in the home? Do the children see the adults reading and are there bookshelves groaning under the weight of loved, respected and much used books? Is there equal time given to reading and TV? Are the children read to from an early age? As the parents treat books and learning, so will the children. They copy us and come to respect our attitudes to things we consider important.

Do we teach by talking? Having conversations with our child, discussing what we do and how we conduct business at the bank, post office and supermarket? I think it is wrong that a child must be seen and not heard. A better interpretation of that dated Victorian concept is that there is a time to listen and a time to speak, and a parent must take the time to teach the difference.

A parent’s role as teacher does not come to an end when the child starts school. In today’s ever larger classes a child can expect an ever diminishing level of personal attention in the classroom. I read somewhere that the average time a child spends in school in any given year, taking into account weekends and holidays, is no more that 14%. The rest of their waking and sleeping hours is under the influence of the home. They need guidance, they need instruction, they need support for what they learn in the classroom, they need time and they need effort. Who else in the world is going to provide for these needs except those who love them and really care about them: their parents?

So when the government calls for a performance agreement from teachers and principals, society should demand one from parents too.

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