Equality in Education and the Elephant

Higher Education April 10, 2017

What do you picture when you hear the phrase ‘equal education for all’?

I guess that the vision you embrace is often framed by your context. For some ‘equal education for all’ means gender equality, for others it refers to children affected by conflict or refugee situations. For me, working in South Africa, it means an equal access to quality education for all children despite poverty or the legacy of apartheid. Although the application of ‘equal education for all’ might by context driven – the goal is universal. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 frames it as “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.

No child should have the quality of their education, and by consequence their future, determined by where and to whom they are born, not one! But although we all subscribe to this goal; the reality is so different. The UN stats on SDG 4 show:

  • Enrolment in primary education in developing countries has reached 91 per cent but 57 million children remain out of school
  • More than half of children that have not enrolled in school live in sub-Saharan Africa
  • An estimated 50 per cent of out-of-school children of primary school age live in conflict-affected areas

We have an elephant sized (well I do live in Africa) problem to face when it comes to inequality in education!

‘How do you eat an elephant?’ is a popular phrase used to illustrate the approach to an almost insurmountable problem. We can all quote the answer ‘one bite at a time’; tackle the huge problem by breaking it into smaller, more manageable pieces.

This is the popular way to tackle the ‘elephant of unequal education’ used by governments or education structures. Bit by bit, piece by piece; changes, innovations and processes are put in place to work towards improving access to and the quality of education. There is a problem with this methodology though…

Have you ever tried to eat an elephant? Or at least imagine what would happen if you tried to eat it piece by piece? It takes time, lots of time to consume an elephant, even a smallish one, bite by bite. Not too long into the process the elephant would start to smell, would start to putrefy. There is an urgency to eating an elephant that is not addressed by this analogy!

The same is even more true with the ‘elephant of unequal education’ – there should be such an urgency to tackle the many barriers/contexts that restrict access to quality education for each child. This was reinforced so poignantly to me last week on a visit to school we support in a township area. There was such focus and determination by the learners to be able to do their computer based Maths lesson. It didn’t matter that three children had to share two chairs and one computer in a school beset with infrastructure challenges. These children desperately wanted to learn in the best way available to them. Their resolve both humbled and challenged me. We don’t have time to waste when eating the ‘inequality elephant’; these learners can’t wait and shouldn’t have to wait for us to tackle this problem piece by piece.

So how else can we ‘eat an elephant’? A former boss of mine, Kobus van Wyk, always answered this question with respect to education ‘by having lots of partners’.

When an elephant dies, first the big cats like lions start on the feast. But very soon they are joined by scavengers, like hyenas and vultures. Finishing up the job are insects, worms and bacteria! The whole process takes just a few days.

This is what we need to be doing more of in education! We need to get as many different partners, with as many different functions to work together to tackle the myriad of problems that make up of “inequality elephant”. We need governments, social enterprises, start-ups, NGOs, large corporations, community groups, foundations, academic intuitions; to name just a few; to all work with urgency on disassembling the barriers and tackling the causes of education in equality. We don’t have the time to just rely on the ‘bite by bite’ methodology. Yes, it will take each partner understanding & co-ordinating their role in process. Yes, it can get messy and misunderstandings or issues may occur. But the alternative is just too unpalatable to face!

We need to tackle the ‘elephant of inequality of education’ both ‘bite by bite’ AND ‘with as many partners as possible’. Only then will we address SDG 4 with the urgency and processes that today’s children need and deserve.