From violence and safety concerns to a severe lack of physical resources, such as school libraries and computer labs, the South African education system is faced with several challenges to overcome. There is, however, a deeper issue that needs to be addressed within the education system.

“Learners do not exist in a vacuum. As social beings, their attitudes, behaviors, abilities, and success all depend on their social environments and the social contexts they are exposed to,” says Mahlatse Mabaso at Rays of Hope, an NGO that provides educational and psycho-social support to learners in Alexandra Township. “We cannot ignore these things if we want to be able to help our learners truly succeed. We must consider the needs of the whole child, with a holistic approach to education.”

Challenges with the modern education system

The modern education system as we know it has not evolved much since the early 1900s, with its roots in the US based on principles introduced by American business magnate, John D Rockefeller. According to his approach, the goal of education was to be ‘vocational’, that is, to teach young people the skills necessary to enter the workforce as employees.

“The world is a vastly different place now, compared to when the initial ideas and approaches to education were formed,” says Kerryn Allagappen, Writer in the Content, Development and Production Division of Regenesys Business School.

“I think the issue with the education system at present is that kids are taught that there’s only one way to be successful, and that’s through academia. But at the end of the day, we need to be able to assess whether you have the knowledge and skills, as well as the capability to use these for your good and the good of others,” Alagappen continues. “Our understanding now is that education is meant to assist the individual to flourish, which is why there needs to be a focus on emotional, physical, and spiritual intelligence.

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education system

Integrating Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

For children in Alex, learning isn’t a linear experience. Poverty, for instance, plays a major role in their lives and impacts their schooling careers. Crime and violence at home or within their communities also influence their learning journey. All these social issues combine to create volatile classroom environments that are not conducive enough to learning.

“We often see worrying instances of violence in children, bringing weapons into school. The problem of gangsterism and the environment in which these children grow up normalize carrying a knife around, even at such a young age. We then see children, at the slightest provocation pulling knives on their peers or teachers,” says Dr Sibongiseni Kumalo, Academic Dean at Regenesys Business School.¬†

The frustration that learners feel at the circumstances they face in life in general, not just in academia, and their inability to express these feelings in appropriate or healthy ways, is what exacerbates the many of the challenges currently faced in schools.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) emerges as an important tool to be integrated into the education system to be able to advance the goal of a more holistic educational environment for all learners. Essentially, SEL teaches learners to find constructive ways to deal with their emotions and frustrations with one another in a respectful manner. Through SEL, learners gain self-awareness, learn to understand better and unpack their thoughts and emotions, and develop a higher level of empathy for others.

“Humans are social beings. To be social is to consider the self in the context of others. We are all also holistic beings with a purpose, different values, and different ways of learning and understanding the world. All these complexities need to be taken into consideration when building educational frameworks for today’s learners. We can’t focus solely on learning when the environment, for instance, is not conducive enough for this to take place successfully,” says Dr Kumalo.

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Taking a holistic approach to education by integrating SEL within the fabric of South African school curriculums is a better approach to addressing the challenges the education sector faces. It’s for this reason that Rays of Hope embraces a holistic strategy to providing care and support to children in Alex that considers the whole child, says Mahlatse Mabaso.

“Addressing the big issues requires big-picture thinking. As such, Rays of Hope offers academic support through a programme called Rose-Act, but we also provide parenting workshops and food programs. A learner living in a healthy, loving home environment with regular access to nutritious meals can learn and attend classes more easily,” says Mahlatse Mabaso.

For more information on the various programs that Rays of Hope engineers and facilitates within the Alexandra Township community, and how to partner with Rays of Hope, visit