Friday, July 10, 2020

Schools reopening riven with desperation undertones

Botswana Government has not always shown mastery in its messaging and also in communicating with parents on matters of education.There is needed for a more respectful engagement.That engagement has to start with an acknowledgement that Botswana’s education system has deteriorated to levels that not basically guarantee conflict between all the stakeholders. Communication by government surrounding opening of schools has manifestly lacked empathy.And this happening at a time when people are under immense emotional and economic pressures.The government literally hounded pupils from government schools through bad education and a string of bad results.

Permanent Secretary for Basic Education Bridget John has said that parents who do not send their students back to school should know that their kids cannot be guaranteed a place at a government school the next time around.This is blackmail and possibly bullying from a senior official who enjoys the full might of state backing. Government knows very well that it has not been able to meet all the protocols set by its own scientists and doctors. Which is why officials have chosen to deploy coded and implicit language on crucial issues like teacher/student ration in the classes.

Obviously government is under pressure to open schools because students missing a whole year would send into a spin an education system that has for years been thrown up-side-down.There is enough evidence to suggest that parents are extremely worried for the welfare and health of their children.For many of them when examinations that will decide their station in life are not too far away.Yet again Botswana’s education system faces another long winter of uncertainty.This is a direct contrast to South Africa where empathy on the part of official has been easy to see.Open of school had to be postponed because government listened to concerns expressed by parents.

President Cyril Ramaphosa also emphasized that there had to be transparency on the preparedness of schools to open.This is commendable – not least because it demonstrates sensitivity, but also because it acknowledges the centrality of parents in education.This applies to kids at government owned schools, but also to privately run schools.Class sizes are too large to allow for social distancing among kids.Botswana Government for their part have not been considerate. Parents have been given a less say on determining whether schools are ready or not.It has been a thinly veiled “take it or leave it” from the government side.Parents are told to bring children back to school or risk forgoing space and even government sponsorship.Given the dangers of coronavirus, and the fear parents have this is insensitive on the part of government.Teachers are themselves afraid as they are corralled by headmasters to do what they know to be wrong.Or face disciplinary issues, or even expulsion.Headmasters are themselves helpless as they are told to take it or leave it, either by regional heads or directly by the head office.Government is shouting orders at parents and doing little to consult them, hear them out.

The State of Emergency has become a curse. Every time government seems or even dreams of a roadblock ahead it invokes the absolute powers inferred by the State of Emergency.But the State of Emergency, even if it stays forever will not resolve education problems.Those problems will also not be resolved by shortcuts or arm-twisting parents. Resolving them will require forbearance, equanimity and patience.Government has to work hard at creating institutional capacity – one school at a time.That includes raising teacher moral, working on student discipline, renovating old buildings and getting teachers accommodation as a way of enhancing the dignity they so crave that their profession has so much taken away from them.But even then, that is only half the story. The mindset exhibited by Ms John to parents has to change.The paradigm shift has to include accepting the unquestionable bonafides of parents as inalienable partners in education of their parents.

One aspect of education system that we however share with Ms John is that Headmasters, Deputy Headmasters Head of Departments and indeed senior teachers all have to teach.Teaching is the bedrock of education and school work.Of course the weight of their lessons will have to be measured against the load of their administrative work.This should not be a way of punishing these essential administrators.It should be a way of them inspiring the other younger teachers who are still in the trenches. Government should not try to minimize or make light of the emotional toll on parents and the nation every time results come out. We are aware that many in government have taken their kids abroad to countries with better education and better school.This obviously enhances their children’s future. Many Batswana do not have such options.

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Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.