PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma must admit South Africa's education system is in crisis, University of the Free State vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen said yesterday.
He said some schools were worse off today than they were during apartheid.
Jansen's call was backed by several school principals in Nelson Mandela Bay, who said things were only getting worse.
Speaking at the Second Karoo Development Conference in Beaufort West, he said: "Any president in a democratic state around the world would have admitted a long time ago our education system is in the midst of a serious crisis."
Booysen Park High School principal Elroy Bosman, who has taught for 37 years, said: "Apartheid was wrong, but where education [in township and northern areas schools] is now is definitely worse than back in apartheid."
Another high school principal from one of Nelson Mandela Bay's townships, who asked not to be named, said education, particularly in the Eastern Cape, was in a "damn crisis".
"I think that if President Zuma does not admit to the crisis, it is on his conscious," the principal said.
He said schools were worse off now than during apartheid, except for the former Model C schools.
"We have teachers at the township schools who send their children to be educated at former Model C schools."
Jansen said that with a growing population, fewer pupils were actually finishing school.
He said schools were even manipulating their matric figures to ensure better pass rates.
"[Pupils] are being treated like idiots," he said.
The number of pupils writing matric exams had dropped since 2008. He said many matrics registered for the exams but then failed to pitch up to write them.
Jansen said Karoo schools faced a bleak future compared to schools in larger cities.
While city schools had access to many NGOs which helped out in a time of crisis, the same could not be said for those in the Karoo.
However, Jansen, who is also the president of the SA Institute of Race Relations, said a valiant effort was being made by NGOs and faith-based organisations in the region.
But more needed to be done to educate the Karoo children as the local organisations lacked resources. His solution was to develop after-hours schools.
Jansen's talk was based on the impact of a strong education system on regional development.
"Everyone has schooling but education is something else. Education comes from the experience gained at a school or university."
He also dismissed Trevor Manuel's National Development Plan as a lofty idea. Manuel, who is Minister in the Presidency in charge of the National Planning Commission, presented the plan to Zuma in August.
"You have this nice development plan but it just makes assumptions about who we are ... it lacks clarity," Jansen said.
The plan also failed to address the plethora of problems at a grass-roots level.
He said people were led by sentiment in South Africa, the result of people going to school but not being educated.
"It is easy for [SACP chairman] Blade Nzimande to bolster support through sentiment.
"That is what the country is running on," he said, referring to the ANC's march against artist Brett Murray's The Spear painting, which depicts Zuma with exposed genitals.
Jansen said if the painting had been depicted or described in a book, there would have been no uproar.
He also attacked maths literacy, a subject in high schools, and the declining number of pupils opting to study mathematics.
"Whoever came up with that idea must be shot – and that is coming from a pacifist."
Jansen said the "terrible" education system had left South Africa in serious trouble.
"We need to get people to believe in high-quality education or we are screwed. If we do not get this right, why bother with this conference."
Sanctor High School acting principal Apollis January said it was "surely possible" to manipulate the pass rate at the school, but this had more to do with children avoiding "killer subjects" like maths, accounting and science.
He said the low number of children taking maths and science could be attributed to a lack of motivation from the pupils' parents.
However, he did not think that schools were worse off than during apartheid.
"We have more resources and children just don't know how to tap into those resources. We have no- fee schools and we have after-hours support programmes for children.
"But parents must get involved and motivate their children. We want to see a quality pass rate," January said.
Bosman said teachers were not adequately trained to teach the new curriculum.
"To admit to the crisis is one thing, they must remedy [it] with a solution," he said.
As proof of the crisis, Bosman said more than 90% of the school's 243 Grade 8 pupils could not read or write properly.
"Everybody is concerned about a good matric pass rate, but they need to look at the problems at primary schools."
Human resources was also a problem at the school.
"We can't promote subjects like physical science because we have been without a teacher for six years.
"We only have one qualified teacher to teach maths and accounting for grades 10 to 12," Bosman said.
Despite the lack of staff, the school doubled its matric pass rate from 42.5% in 2010 to 85.4% last year. It is aiming for 100% this year.
Other topics for discussion at the conference include fracking, unemployment and tourism.