Teachers have a crucial role to play in building social cohesion

Trevor Samson/World Bank/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

1994 was a deeply important year for South Africa. It ushered in a democratic society committed to the eradication of racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination. It brought political change that promised the building of a “rainbow nation” committed to the ideas of equity and redress. There have been many accomplishments and significant changes in the past 22 years.

But recent events have raised questions about how far the country has really come in building a united non-racial society that embodies unity in diversity. Some have been negative and divisive – racially offensive, derogatory comments by individuals. Others, like the country’s student protest movements, have opened up spaces for debate and got people thinking about issues of curriculum change and decolonisation.

Race talk and identification remains a concern within everyday social life. Different groups of people distrust each other deeply and continue to closely associate according to previous racial categorisations. The country’s apartheid past still casts a long shadow on its future.

To shake off this shadow, South Africans need a deeper understanding of what social cohesion means and how it can be attained. Research my colleagues and I recently completed also shows how important it is that teachers are provided with support to infuse their work with the principles of social cohesion.

Education and social cohesion

The country’s Department of Arts and Culture defines social cohesion as the degree of social integration and inclusion in communities and society at large. It also refers to how much mutual solidarity finds expression among individuals and communities. In the South African context, social cohesion is about social integration, equality and social justice. It requires the promotion of positive relationships, trust, solidarity, inclusion, collectivism and common purpose.

Concerns about social cohesion have manifested in various ways. The government has hosted summits on the subject. It’s drafted a social cohesion strategy and even appointed “advocates” to champion social cohesion.

There’s also been work in the education sector. The department of basic education has launched a review of textbooks to identify instances of discrimination and bias.

It’s important that such work happens in the education sphere. Equitable, quality education plays a crucial role in building a nation. South Africa’s education system is anything but equitable. Research shows that in 2013, 87% of white learners and 73% of Indian learners were attending the country’s most well resourced public schools. Only 6% of black African learners were enrolled in these schools.

The drive to understand how an equitable education system and social cohesion go hand and hand is what prompted our research. It was conducted by the Centre for International Teacher Education at South Africa’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology, in collaboration with the University of Sussex in the UK. It’s part of a larger multi-country study and explored how teachers are given the space to become agents of peace and social cohesion.

We argue that social cohesion should be understood in relation to achieving durable social justice, eliminating all forms of inequities and disadvantage. We discovered that teachers need far more professional development, policy direction and support to ensure that social cohesion is realised in classroom teaching and learning.

A mass of policies

Many policies since 1994 have been designed to empower teachers and improve their skills. But the area of social cohesion and teachers' critical role in its promotion hasn’t received enough attention. As with so many other areas of education, impressive policy goals have not been translated into reality. Their realisation has been undermined by, among other things, poor intergovernmental coordination and collaboration, and lack of implementation clarity and support.

Coordination is especially complicated in the education sphere. Contrary to what’s outlined in the Constitution, national and provincial education departments often take up different responsibilities in quite different ways. Various provinces and individual schools often interpret policy goals quite differently. This has been seen, for instance, in how different provinces implemented their curriculum overhaul in 2009.

Such different interpretations have important implications for the changes that the policy in question aims to bring about.

Curriculum changes

Another issue that’s important for building social cohesion is the curriculum itself and the textbooks used. Curriculum reform has been an important area of change since 1994. The right curriculum can help to lay the foundations for a democratic, open and united society.

Our research found significant omissions in the existing national curriculum when it comes to issues of equity and social cohesion. One important example is in Life Orientation. Social cohesion – discussions about living together with people from different cultures, for instance – forms part of this subject. But the curriculum is so overcrowded there’s no real space for such discussions to happen in a meaningful, ongoing fashion.

There’s also a real danger that with so many demands in the national education agenda issues like social cohesion are often devalued or not readily promoted. Schools tend to focus on “priority” subjects like Science and Mathematics. They often ask why they should “waste time” with issues like social cohesion

Actually, issues of social cohesion need to be integrated effectively across the curriculum. This can happen by, for instance, ensuring that African texts and authors are positively represented in textbooks. It could also take the form of removing discriminatory bias – such as an example from a textbook that appeared to blame rape survivors for their ordeal.

The importance of high quality teacher education

High quality initial and continuing teacher professional development matters, too. Different universities with different cultural histories often rub up against students' diverse racial, class and gendered identities. They also strongly shape how student teachers think about the contexts they are set to enter. There isn’t a consistent approach across South Africa’s universities to how trainee teachers learn about social cohesion.

Those who educate teachers need to both support and challenge student teachers. They need to both provide content knowledge and stimulate them to seek knowledge, while exposing students to diverse ways of teaching and to different social contexts. Those that educate teachers must pay better attention to how student teachers are empowered with a variety of teaching approaches and tools that will allow them to engage productively with learners and promote social cohesion.

Agents of social cohesion

Overall, the research revealed that promoting social cohesion through education requires context specific, proactive strategies that address South Africa’s historic and structural drivers of inequality.

More specifically, it requires the political will to support teachers so they can acquire the knowledge, skills and disposition to become agents of peace and social cohesion. Teachers and schools can only do so much, though. As long as the schooling system’s outcomes continue to be bifurcated and unequal and societal inequality widens, social cohesion may remain elusive. Peace will be tenuous and conflict will continue to loom.

The Conversation

The ‘Engaging teachers in peacebuilding in postconflict contexts: evaluating education interventions in Rwanda and South Africa’ research project is led by Professor Yusuf Sayed and funded through ESRC-DFID Pathway to Poverty Alleviation Programme. This research investigates the role of teachers in peacebuilding in the post-conflict contexts of Rwanda and South Africa. I gratefully acknowledge the support of our funder, research partners and our institutions. The views expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of funders or their partners.