Failure of Eastern Cape education, but on whose part?

Ashley Westaway speaks to the Think!Fest audience
Ashley Westaway speaks to the Think!Fest audience

Ashley Westaway is the Manager of GADRA education, an organisation which aims to provide educational services and transformation of the education system in Grahamstown. In speaking about the state of schools in the Eastern Cape, he presents us with a story of failure. Whether the failure lies with the students or the system is what we need to question.

According to Westaway, the principal of a school outside Grahamstown repeatedly postponed a planned GADRA visit because the high school was closed in solidarity with SADTU protests. The June pass rate of this school was 11%.

The proportion of black youth in skilled employment is lower in 2014 than it was in 1994, according to StatsSA.

At the beginning of the year, 40 Grade 11 learners progressed to Grade 12. What this meant was that they had already failed in that band, so despite failing Grade 11 they had still been promoted to Grade 12.

The proportion of Grade 10 learners that went on to write Grade 12 exams has dropped below 50% across the country.

The statistics are bleak and we need to find a way to make sense of what is going on. Schools that underperform like this can be considered ‘dysfunctional’ schools as they fail to function as an educational institution. Usually, these schools are understood as failing because of various deficits such as a lack of good teachers, effective management, textbooks and desks. However, Westaway puts forward the idea that dysfunctional schools are not just defined by what they lack, but what they serve. If you can understand what a system is doing, you can understand why it functions unchallenged.

Westaway explains this using Bourdieu’s theories, saying that an ideology of merit is used to justify the inequalities. Children that underperform are said to be lacking gifts and talents, and this is supposedly why poorer children don’t do as well in school. The common story that is told is that all children now have universal access to education, no fee schools are available, feeding schemes are in place at schools and so any failure must be due to a child not working hard enough, as everything they need is available to them.

However, our government has created a welfare state that simultaneously sustains and suppresses, according to Westaway. We have both welfare (child support, disability and pension grants) as well as patronage, where patrons use state resources to secure the loyalty of clients. The role of bureaucracy then is not to deliver services but to benefit from patronage. This is the function that so-called dysfunctional schools are serving. Westaway believes that the failure of the education system therefore has nothing to do with the children and everything to do with the schools and the teachers, as well as a curriculum that is fundamentally racist.

We need to stop looking at schools as just dysfunctional and repeating the story that the black child is lazy and undisciplined, that all persistent problems are the legacy of apartheid, that black parents are pathetic and indifferent, that because of past inequalities a black child must not expect to do well, that they must merely expect the government to provide and that because conditions of schools have improved slightly since apartheid, they must feel indebted to the ruling party. Rather, we need to look at what systems are in place in these schools and the kinds of ideologies that they are serving to function, and perhaps that is how we begin to make sense of education in the Eastern Cape.

More information on GADRA can be found at

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