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How to put active citizenship in the curriculum



We commemorate Youth Day to remember the Soweto youth uprising of 16 June 1976. These brave secondary school students were active citizens protesting against the apartheid government forcing them to learn all their subjects in Afrikaans. They paid the price, and many were tragically killed during this march and others, but they did bring us closer to ending the oppressive apartheid regime.

Here we are, 47 years later, and there are still many challenges in our education system which have ripple effects across many sectors. The use of the mother tongue as a language of educational instruction ends in Grade 4 in 70% of public schools. Now, imagine if all your life you’ve been speaking and learning in Sotho and suddenly, you’re forced to learn how to do maths in English.

There are no easy answers because the working world is mainly English so it would be a disadvantage not to have a good grasp of the language, but how it’s done may be the concern.

There was much horror when the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report came out recently, reporting that 81% of pupils in South Africa in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning. First, we were the only southern African country to agree to participate in this study, which was created by northern countries that are mostly first world. Second, the study doesn’t consider the Grade 4 change in the language of instruction. And lastly, the study doesn’t take into account the many school days that were lost over the two years of lockdown and disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Often, teachers are blamed for poor results. Many don’t understand that in lower-quintile schools, where hunger and overcrowding are common, the challenges are huge. Some teachers feel they are also mothers, law enforcers, nurses, and social workers to their pupils because the needs of their pupils are such. Teachers often don’t feel supported by the system, and may suffer burnout.

However, what we need to focus on is that formal classroom education is one element of raising children. What’s really important is to develop children holistically. This includes instilling positive values, curiosity, agency, and a sense of empowerment and motivation to become contributing and active citizens.

By having practical experience of embarking on a project where they must solve a problem and prove the impact, these pupils start to realise that they hold the power right now to be agents of change. Money cannot buy the confidence and self-esteem that young people get when they get these skills and feel the motivation to use them for positive change.

We also need to focus on creating not just entrepreneurs but social entrepreneurs who not only create employment, but also solve social, environmental, educational, and economic challenges. We have seen examples of these businesses with the TOMS shoes model, in which a pair of shoes is donated for every pair sold. This type of business model is the way of the future.

The high unemployment issue we face isn’t just from the lack of educational excellence, but from the social ecosystem and lack of soft skills, which are so important for the fourth industrial revolution. Many careers are yet to be created, but having good communication skills, conflict-management tools, emotional intelligence, project-management skills, professionalism, a solution-seeking mindset, perseverance, and resilience is key. Every set of problems has a solution, and this mindset is what’s necessary to make a positive change in our country.

Over the past 14 years, I have had the privilege of working in the education sector nationally. I’m not a teacher, but I’ve met so many dedicated and passionate teachers who go above and beyond to ensure a brighter future for their pupils.

For example, there’s a secondary school educator in a rural KwaZulu-Natal village who often helps pupils after school hours, on weekends, and over holidays to ensure that they grab every opportunity available to them. This teacher is teaching many grades, but still makes time to assist even at the expense of her health.

It has also been amazing to see what a difference it makes to have school leadership that’s forward-focused and open to new programmes to assist pupils instead of focusing solely on completing the curriculum.

A principal of a township school in the Eastern Cape works hand-in-hand with his social worker to assist pupils, and the pass rate at the school skyrocketed with this caring leadership. They are also open to extracurricular programmes that further empower their pupils.

A bottom-up approach – giving young people the agency to express their views and challenges while encouraging them to seek and implement solutions while being mentored by caring teachers or other support staff – can change the whole culture of the school and the community.

We have seen young people who developed a “service mentality” start campaigns to help people while they studied at university. For example, a young lady has started a “period poverty alleviation” campaign at her university. Instead of waiting for things to change, these young people are taking charge and making things happen.

We have also found that when young people realise that they can make a difference no matter their age, socio-economic background, gender, or location, it brings out the best in them. The focus on helping others gives a strong sense of purpose. In 2019, primary school pupils in KwaNobuhle township in the Eastern Cape decided to help a younger pupil who had no legs below the knees to get prosthetic legs and the confidence to walk in them. The whole school celebrated this victory, and Sisi was given the support she needed.

Our future is brighter when we have young leaders who think of others and want to uplift them, instead of many of our current leaders, who focus on selfish greed.

  • Amanda Blankfield-Koseff founded The Youth Citizens Action Programme (YCAP) in 2009 and in 2013, moved it to a new youth development non-profit organisation, Empowervate. YCAP empowers young people to solve or lessen the social, environmental, educational or economic problems.

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