Every morning on my way to work I have driven past a particular house. Like the others in that neighbourhood, the house is small and dark, with a yard that is dusty or muddy, depending on the weather. Inevitably there is a little girl standing outside at the gate, watching the comings and goings along the street.
I first noticed her because she looked to be the same age as my son. For three years I watched her grow from a tubby toddler to a little girl, and my heart broke a little more every day – not simply because of the shabby surroundings and obvious poverty, but because I knew that one day she would be writing the same matric exams as my son. If she got that far.
That was when I realised the enormity of the problems we face as a nation. Aside from the moral, social and economic implications, this picture of the little girl at the gate cuts straight to the heart of our education crisis. There is absolutely no equality where it matters most.
From the moment my son opens his eyes in the morning he is on a mission – to explore, experiment, build, move, challenge, change, and ask as many questions as his ever-growing vocabulary will allow. He is insatiably curious, and with parents and grandparents who value and nurture this natural love of learning, every day is a voyage of discovery. And while all this is happening, that little girl is standing at the gate watching the world go by.
This year they both started Grade R. Next year they will (hopefully) go into Grade 1 and begin the formal CAPS curriculum. My son, who has been drawing, painting, playing, counting, conversing, and telling and listening to stories for years will, I believe, thrive. What will it be like for the girl at the gate?
So far my son’s education has had very little to do with toys or teachers. Instead it’s had everything to do with time. He is surrounded by people who engage with him, encourage him, and challenge him. We talk all the time, using words he doesn’t understand but wants to, we tell stories and play silly games, and when he asks a million questions we give him a million real answers. And by playing in the bath, digging in the dirt and experimenting with household objects like shoes, belts and plastic cups he has built motor skills and learnt valuable mathematical and scientific concepts.
The great inequality in our education system isn’t the difference in resources – everything around us is a potential learning resource. In any environment, what gives one child an advantage over another is the adults around him/her. Everyone is born curious; everyone is born with an instinct to learn and grow. For children of any age to thrive they need adults who will foster that curiosity and give them opportunities to develop that learning instinct. And it starts from the moment they take their first breath of life.
How do we address this kind of inequality? It’s such a complex issue, we can’t just throw money at it, or hold a protest, or put together an intervention programme. I don’t know, but when I think about the girl at the gate I can’t do nothing. At the very least we need to be the kind of adults our children need most, and encourage others to do the same. Maybe that’s a start.