The American and South African education systems have a lot of differences – both strengths and weaknesses. Having received an education from South Africa all my life, my familiarity with the intricate shortcomings of my country’s education system has often made me oblivious to the comparative struggles of education systems in other parts of the world. Being in the US however, has granted me numerous opportunities to discuss the challenges of the education system here and given me insight on how the two countries could learn from each others’ relative strengths and weaknesses.
Early childhood development is probably the issue I can best speak on when it comes to comparing the two – given my time spent at the National Women’s Law Center for the past six weeks in the Child Care unit. Accessibility to affordable, quality child care services is a constant uphill battle for both countries, despite the numerous studies that show the significant impacts of early learning on children’s academic performance and greater cognitive abilities in future. A lot of the work we did at the Center was lobbying and advocating for increased federal and state provisions for improving access to Child Care services and providing support for child care providers, which is essential for low-income families.
One of the takeaways that South Africa could take from the US approach is the implementation of distinct state-sponsored child care programs that can be enforced nationwide, as well as the strategic allocation of funds to numerous ways of funding Child Care such as subsidies for centers and providers, vouchers for parents who needed immediate assistance with child care costs and possibly, child care tax credits for tax-liable parents (mostly the middle class) who are struggle to afford Child Care. This can even go as far as to invest in subsidized training of child care providers and assistance with setting up centers, in order to combat the issue of unsafe, unlicensed child care centers. This is not only a commitment to improving access to safe and effective services for early learning, but it is also an investment into the empowerment of women who can join the workforce permanently and enjoy income security and stability.
The second issue in education is at the primary school level. One of the commendable practices in South Africa is the dedication to bilingualism and multilingualism at a young age. We obviously have very different cultural contexts, given that South Africa has 11 official languages, while the US has one (with recent strong efforts to include Spanish). At a primary school level, many schools offer classes in more than one language across the country. We have all seen many articles on the bilingual effects on early cognitive and linguistic development of children which better enables them to interact with and understand the work. This is something that is slowly picking up in the US, although there is a lot that can be done to push this towards focusing on various students’ home languages. At the end of the day, it is not just early learning that wins, but better understanding and appreciation for multiculturalism and diversity.
Lastly, at a higher education level, my interactions with fellow interns both from my organisation and others has shed so much light on the disparities of the education systems. A lot of the things that aid American students to succeed post-high school and post-university are purely structural things – some which need resources and some which merely require a cultural and paradigm shift. Practices like investing in college counselors who assist students with the transition from high school to the next step, and understand the university systems enough to guide students in their individual choices. This could help span the gap of students who give up after high school because of lack of knowledge about options of institutions or funding options.
Another valuable takeaway for South Africa is the culture of willingness to give young people a shot. The willingness to take interns in, to mentor them, value their contributions in the workplace – investing in students from a variety of backgrounds and interests and not just graduates of that particular field that that company or organisation specialises in. We tend to place many barriers to affording students work exposure while they are still studying by placing great emphasis unrealistic prior experience requirements and higher levels of formal qualification, as opposed to looking at individuals holistically and seeing an opportunity to mold a young professional. I found that this tradition of investment into work exposure is what continues to fuel the hunger for learning among students of many ages in the US in a way that I would love to see back home in South Africa.