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South Africa seriously needs to fix its education system to develop a knowledge economy

South Africa’s education system is in a bad state. That was the grim message conveyed by Prof Roy du Pré (pictured above), chairperson of South African Technology & Training Platform at the recent SA Innovation Summit.

It’s easy to see what he means, especially if you combine all the headlines of the last few years — from having the worst maths, science education in world to 80% of South African schools being labelled dysfunctional.

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There are, however, some inspiring programmes trying to tackle various challenges faced by the country’s education system. From teaching children robotics and programming to partnering business leaders with principals from underperforming schools, each initiative seeks to spur and develop a knowledge economy in South Africa.

“Innovation is taking knowledge, making it better, smarter or efficient. We have to create new knowledge all the time to create new innovative products that can be sold and generate wealth,” said du Pré.

The professor explained that universities are at the core of creating this new knowledge and are thus the basis for innovation and a knowledge economy. South Africa’s tertiary education system, du Pré noted, is in deep trouble.

Du Pré noted that if we stop creating knowledge, we stop creating innovation and wealth. “That’s the problem with South Africa’s universities today,” he said. “They are beginning to slow down in production of new knowledge and the creation of knowledge workers.”

Read more: The opportunities for tech in Africa have never been bigger

“South Africa’s universities today no longer appears to be about education, acquiring, philosophising, engaging, creating knowledge and scholarships,” Du Pré said. “South African universities have become battlefields for rectifying societal, political, environmental and financial issues.”

“I’m very positive and very hopeful that if we start developing knowledge economy sectors in the southern hemisphere, South Africa would be at the top. But that’s just me being hopeful,” he said. “We need to create a bridge between universities and industries.”

Du Pré noted that there needs to be a bridge between universities and industries. Initiatives such as the Department of Science and Technology’s R&D incentive programme which provides 150% tax incentive on new research from any industry are critical in this regard.

As De Pré pointed out, universities’ in-takes are becoming poorer because of the country’s underperforming primary and secondary education systems.

Creating engineers and innovators at a grass-roots level

“Out of the one million students who start-off at grade one, 500 000 make it to matric and 200 000 go on to tertiary education and lead economically active lives,” said University of South Africa (Unisa) lecturer Patricia Gouws. “The country’s engineers of 2030 are in grade two today.”

Gouws argued that if people are to really foster innovation and overcome economical and social challenges in the country, they need to start fostering skills at the grassroots level.

Not only is Gouws a senior lecturer at the country’s largest university, she’s also a project coordinator at I-SET which is creating awareness of and inspiration in science, engineering and technology through robotics.

“We live in an innovation age,” Gouws said. “A practical education must prepare a man or woman for work and inspire children to think outside of the box. We live in an innovation age. Practical education is preparing children for jobs that don’t exist today.”

Part of Unisa, I-SET targets children between the ages nine and 16, introducing kits such as LEGO Mindstorn that teaches basic programming and hardware customisation.

I-SET is also a facilitator for students to who want to participate in the First LEGO League (FLL) — an annual global competition that uses encourages science and robotics at a young age.

In this year’s FLL competition, around 23 000 teams of children are trying to solve real-world problems like storing, reusing, recycling and collecting trash.

South Africa usually has less than 240 teams that participate in this challenge.

Similar to the Maker Faire philosophy, participants of programmes like FLL are encouraged to play, experiment and learn crucial skills such as team working, practical mechanics and out-of-the-box thinking.

Read more: Why South Africa really needs to embrace the Maker Movement

Asked whether basic programming or robotics are being lobbied for or even considered at a national level, Gouws answered with a disappointing “no”.

Connecting industry leaders with school principals

Dr Louise van Rhyn founder of Symphonia Leadership Development believes that the country’s strong corporate industry can lend a hand.

“Around 80% of South Africa’s schools are indeed dysfunctional, 20% are really good,” van Rhyn said. “We have knowledge and skills in South Africa. It’s just radically displaced.”

While the country suffers in terms of its education, it’s still home to some of the world’s greatest talents and business minds. For instance, South Africa is rated having one of the most developed financial markets in the world.

This is why Symphonia is behind an innovative programme, called Partners for Possibility, which is connecting and forming relationships between business leaders and school principals.

“People are interested in the idea that business are able to benefit education in more prominent ways,” she added. “Instead of sending business leaders to business school, send them to a real school.”

She added that there are currently 331 business leaders from 255 South African organisations in reciprocal co-learning and co-action partnerships with school principals

Van Rhyn explained that the initiative is starting to show radically improved education outcomes.

By 2025 we want to have a big celebration and say that we’ve changed South Africa’s education system in that we now have quality education in all our schools. We know we can do that if we have 20 000 small groups of people localised around 20 000 schools. And we can do that in a decade.

Whether teaching children robotics or partnering business leaders with principals will ultimately reshape the country’s education system is unclear. What is clear though is the fact that the country needs a combination of these innovative approaches today in order to develop a knowledge economy and stay relevant in our modern world.

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