The challenges facing students are abound, both in the environment and intrapersonal issues. However, there are challenges specific to students from poor backgrounds, and in the south African context, these students are mostly Blacks and Coloureds, but more especially Black students who live in the townships and the extra-appalling squatter camps. This overly skewed over-representation of Black students in the poverty category, while by contradistinction White students mostly come from more affluent, higher-income homes, is explainable through history and structure, which includes an economic pattern historically designed to exclude people of African descent, while systematically favoring White people.
The other factors which may contribute to the huge difference in the school experience of Black, Coloured students as compared to White or more affluent students, are social capital, medium of instruction, where Afrikaans speakers have an additional option to the dominant English language used throughout the length and breath of South Africa.
Squatter camps are totally non-human settlements, but a significant portion of South Africans live in such squalor. Informal as it were, there are no schools there; the students must go to nearby townships to access any kind of formal education. Townships do have public schools, whether they are enough in quantity is another question, but the quality of the education dished out in public school premises is far below par in comparison to private schools or an acceptable standard which we can say truly educates the child. In public township schools, we have very bad excuses for mathematics and physical science, as well as biology education. Students, who have had to overcome a language barrier, today are taken for grant, from their native languages, which are markedly different from Indo-European, to English and sometimes in pursuit of better education, Afrikaans too. But nevertheless, a vast majority of students successfully learn Indo-European
Languages which are used as medium of instruction, one dominant and the other both a substitute and a deputizing tongue.
Black students in the townships have to deal with absent science laboratories, and to memories elaborate chemical equations narrating the practical experiments they would have otherwise witnessed. This is in addition to a rapidly diminishing number of teachers able to teach the said subjects. As a result, the country has witnessed a number of high-school sholars prefer math literacy to mathematics, in addition to those who already avoid numbers altogether by choosing streams of subjects without calculations of any sort.
Township schools also have absent, or hardly functional, libraries. Facilities that are lacking or not in proper use by both educators and learners, perhaps due to lack of product information, which means structural problems in conjunction to performative ones, contribute significantly to the unfavorable conditions of township schooling. However, poverty is the single most defining factor in the failure of a child’s schooling.
On this point, the University of Wisconsin, United States, reported a study in which it was claimed that the postnatal environment could hinder brain development of children from poor backgrounds, when compared to peers from higher-income families. Pollack, an academic from the above mentioned University, states that the brains of infants are remarkably similar in appearance, but since there is marked difference by the 4th year of children’s lives, the postnatal environment is seen as playing a determining role.
The good news is that such arrested development is not permanent and there is a way to mitigate it. Barbara Wolfe, a professor of economics, population and public affairs, counts all of the following as factors with adverse impact on brain development and thus impact on mental wellbeing. These factors are: poor nutrition; parental stress; lack of sleep; environment not conducive to learning, etc.
The most obvious of these is poor nutrition. This can affect concentration levels depending on what is short in the student’s body. And as lamented before, schools have less than spectacular libraries, as well as poor facilities to help with the necessary information. The bad news is that townships, almost as a rule, also have libraries of inferior quality to those in areas populated by White people. In most townships there is only one library for the whole community and there may be, say, only 5 computers for Internet services. By contrast, there are taverns in almost every second street. There are now, also, a lot more shopping complexes in these areas. This is true for every township in this country. The environmental unsuitability to learning worsens when one gets to the squatter camps, because that socio-spatial entity is only for shelter and it scores worst even at that.
By Siyabonga Mviko