Is It Really That Bad?

My connections to the educational systems in Canada and Swaziland are both significant.

Here in Canada I spent 25 years in public education in B.C. and the Yukon, retiring as assistant deputy minister here, in 1981, to pursue a career as an Anglican priest. 

In Swaziland, my own four Swazi children attended public schools there during my 16 years in the country, and later I was president of the Swaziland Educational Trust Society (SETS), a 2004 Yukon incorporated charity that sponsors very poor Swazi children who otherwise would not get a public education.

Since bringing my children to Canada in 2002 I have been back to Swaziland on six different occasions. 

The educational system in Swaziland is based on a British model – Swaziland was a British protectorate until 1958, when it achieved independence.

Students write external exams at the end of Grades 7, 10, and 12. Teaching can be best described as “rote learning” in very large classes that range from 45 to 60 pupils. The strategy is to teach the students something and then test them.

The typical classroom is devoid of educational stimulus besides one or two blackboards and a box of chalk.

Most schools have neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Specialized classrooms like gyms, industrial arts and home economics rooms, and libraries are few and far between. Some high schools have science labs, but they are far from our standards. Computer classrooms have been introduced over the past 10 years, but often with used equipment from the developed world.

There are few or no specialized programs for children with learning deficits. Social promotion is the norm.

In Swaziland, parents pay fees so their children can go to school, although free public elementary education has been introduced in the last few years.

The children of many poor parents don’t go to school, or start late. Sometimes their education will get interrupted for a year because the funds are not available. The dropout rates are high.

In large families those who excel often continue at the expense of those who do less well. In addition to school fees, parents pay exam fees for students in Grades 7, 10 and 12. Most schools require money from parents for a “building fund” which allows schools to expand with larger enrolments.

The government, through the Department of Education, pays for curricula expenses and teacher salaries.

There is not much music, art or physical education. Extra curricular activities centre on an annual choral music competition, a soccer competition for boys, and a netball competition for girls. Debating competitions are also popular. 

During my recent visit to Swaziland I became aware that corporal punishment was banned in the schools, but read newspaper articles about a backlash from teachers and parents, because students were challenging the authority of the teaching staff, and some claimed students were packing knives.

In light of my own experiences, it can’t be all that bad.

When I brought my four Swazi children to Canada in 2002 they adjusted to our educational system quite easily. I remember my twin daughters saying about mathematics, “We already studied that last year in Swaziland.”

Supporting talented students to pursue an education in Swaziland pays off. Of the first three Swazi girls I sponsored with Canadian help in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, one now has a master’s degree in education and the other is the Swazi administrator for SETS.

When SETS was incorporated in 2004 the board of directors set a minimum goal of basic literacy for sponsored students. Ten years later, we now have high school graduates, with four more to graduate in 2014.

For SETS this is a good news story, and all because of the generosity of Canadians who support our fund raising activities. 

One of those fundraisers is a spaghetti dinner and loonie auction, which will take place on Saturday April 12 at Hellaby Hall in the Anglican Church located at 4th Avenue and Elliott St. Dinner will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. with the loonie auction starting at 7 p.m. All the prizes are African arts and crafts I brought home after my recent trip.

Tickets are $10 per person and available from me at 689-1501. 

I started my teaching career in 1955 and our system was, in many ways, much like it is today in Swaziland.

Maybe the changes we have seen in Canada will in fact take place in Swaziland during the years to come.

We can never forget that we are a developed nation and they are a developing one.

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