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Education: Can we fix it? Yes we can

by Brahm Fleisch: Professor of Education Policy in the Division of Education Leadership and Policy Studies at Wits School of Education. His research and teaching interests include education planning, school effectiveness / improvement, educational finance, and systemic change.

The results of the 2011 Annual National Assessments (ANA), the Department of Basic Education’s nation-wide test of literacy and numeracy/mathematics, came as no surprise. On the Grade 6 language test only 15 percent of South African schoolchildren scored at or above the minimum proficiency and in mathematics only 12 percent were at or above the level.


Performance in Grade 6 language and mathematics, Annual National Assessments, 2011


Source: Department of Basic Education, Report on the Annual National Assessments of 2011



The 2011 ANA reveals that the overwhelming majority of South African children are getting to the end of primary school without being proficient in reading, writing and mathematics. The consequences of this are clear. Children that have not mastered the basics are likely to struggle in secondary school. Roughly half will drop out before Grade 12. For those that write their matriculation exams, a third will fail. And even if learners manage to pass, few will receive pass marks that allow them access to university. While the matriculation pass rates may have oscillated in the past decade with a slight uptick last year, the National Planning Commission recently noted only 15 percent of learners achieved an average mark of 40% or more. This means that only about 7 percent of the children born between 1990 and 1994 achieved this standard. It is for this reason that the National Planning Commission has identified the crisis in South African education as the second most serious challenge the country faces after unemployment.

Obscured in the average achievement results is the profound inequality gap. In my book, Primary Education in Crisis, I refer to this statistical pattern as a bimodal distribution of achievement. On a graph, the vast majority of children in poor township and rural schools are clustered in a huge group at the low end of achievement scale, and a second much smaller group, between 10-15 percent of learners, fall in a pattern above the mean. The latter group are children, both black and white, that have access to some of the better performing middle class schools. Basically, studies of learning achievement tell us that eight out of ten children reach the end of primary school with only the most basic literacy and mathematics skills. They can read but only short simple sentences, they can write but only with considerable difficulty. They have mastered some basic arithmetic, but too often use ineffective methods to do simple calculations, seldom coming to understand the range of mathematical knowledge and skills required for learning in secondary school.

The ANA results, while shocking, were not unexpected as the Minister of Basic Education Motshekga reminds us. For the past decade at least, government’s systemic evaluation tests, international tests that South African had participated in and the many smaller scale evaluations and research studies have highlighted the crisis of achievement in primary education. The PIRLS (Progress in International Literacy Study) undertaken in 2006 showed that the average performance of South African Grade 4s and Grade 5s were the lowest of all the countries that had participated in the study. The 2007 SACMEQ (Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality), a study that was specifically confined to countries in southern and east Africa, show that South African children’s achievement levels have remained more or less at the same level in the past decade.

While the chronic instability that characterised the schools attended by working class and poor children in the 1980s and early 1990s has stabilised (an important achievement), the majority of schools are simply not providing South Africans with anything even approximating equal opportunity. The learners attending school with my own children at Parkview schools in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg mostly took reports home to their parents that indicated they were at the required curriculum proficiency level or had outstanding results, however, children in overcrowded schools in the informal settlements of Diepsloot or remote rural schools in the Eastern Cape and farms schools of Mpumalanga took failing reports home.

Why are so many South African schoolchildren underachieving in the key school subjects at the beginning of their educational careers?

At least in part, this is the legacy that Henrick Vervoerd bequeathed to South Africa. For fifty years, apartheid education had been deliberately designed to privilege whites and disadvantage black South Africa. In every respect, from the training of teachers to the very buildings that the schools occupied, apartheid education entrenched inequality. It was against this policy of exclusion that young black South Africans rebelled and made schools in townships the site of a struggle against apartheid.

But history alone is not the only reason. The pattern of unequal academic achievement is also about children’s health, pervasive poverty, language practices, resources/funding and classroom teaching. Research undertaken in diverse fields from the health sciences, psychology, applied linguistics, economics and sociology have demonstrated the complexity of factors that contribute to poor learning outcomes. Poor children are far more likely than their middle class counterparts to suffer from a wide range of health problems such as poor nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, intestinal parasites, seasonal middle ear infections, and fetal alcohol syndrome to mention just a few. Generally, poverty more often means that homes do not have key resources like newspapers, magazines and books to re-enforce a culture of reading. Low income and unemployed parents and grandparents often feel inadequate and insecure to be their children’s educational champions and supportive of school and homework. And while South Africa may be in the midst of a long-term language transition, most poor children face the double burden of learning to read and do mathematics and learning in a second or third language. Funding and resources continue to be factors. Although South Africa's spending on education as a percentage of GDP is one of the highest in the world, these funds are not always effectively used. Although considerable progress has been made in building and renovating schools in urban and rural schools, we continue to have schools without the most basic of amenities such as running water, toilets and electricity. And despite significant annual expenditure on learning support materials or textbooks, many classrooms do not provide each child with a textbook for each subject.

A fascinating new study that has recently been released has shown that the problem of underachievement is not all external to the classroom. The HSRC/Stanford University Study that compared Grade 6 mathematics achievement and teaching in Botswana and the North West province shows that on average the South African schoolchildren received far few mathematics lessons and that their teachers had poorer understanding of mathematics. South African teachers are more likely to use ineffective rote methods rather than teaching of mathematics procedures and teaching for understanding. This study supports a growing body of South African research showing that what happens inside South African classrooms is an important part of why South African children are not learning effectively. Some of the classroom factors are relatively straight forward such as the lower number of actual lessons taught; others are more difficult to address like the pedagogic and content knowledge of South African primary school teachers.

Government is acutely aware of the scope and severity of the problem. In the past decade, a range of policies and programmes have been developed by government. Under Minister Pandor’s stewardship, the Department of Education developed the Foundations for Learning campaign to provide teachers with a stronger direction to concentrate on the core teaching of language, literacy and mathematics in the primary grades. Our current Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, has made the problem the core of her work. The new Department of Basic Education has set in place proficiency targets for schools and provinces to improve learning outcomes in its Action Plan to 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling in 2025. In 2011, the Department of Basic Education developed, printed and distributed a series of workbooks in language subjects and mathematics for all public primary school learners in the country. Realising some of the major weaknesses of the official curriculum, it has undertaken a review and consolidation of the curriculum framework. Starting in 2012, schools will be implementing a simplified and more focused Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS).

Government has not been alone in its concern about primary school underachievement. Over the past decades, the private sector directly has made considerable amount of money available for projects and individual schools and has funded sector-wide initiatives through the Business Trust. Education NGOs like READ Educational Trust and Molteno Institute have been working with primary schools across the country.

If the 2011 ANA results are accurate, and there are few reasons to doubt their veracity, government, international donor and private sector initiatives have made little enduring difference. But why, despite the considerable effort and substantial funding, are we not beginning to see clear evidence of improvement? There are a couple of plausible explanations. First, it could be argued that given the extent and scope of the problem it is still too early days and that improvement takes time to bed down and show results. This explanation is bolstered by the observation that the new curriculum is only designed to be implemented in 2012 and that the workbooks, another key piece of the Department of Basic Education’s strategy, were only provided to all schools in 2011. A second explanation suggests that the ‘solutions’ that we - government, NGOs, universities, international donor agencies and the private sector - support and implement, simply do not work. While all projects and programmes these days come with external evaluators’ reports that routinely find statistical significant gains in project schools compared to control schools, the effects are often not educationally significant and the system-wide improvements fade quickly after projects end.

The national Minister has limited real authority over schools and classrooms because in terms of the Constitution the actual day-to-day running of the schools is a function allocated to provinces. These provinces are often managing a range of competing challenges and often do not have sufficient capacity to be single minded about addressing primary school language and mathematics achievement. And while the private sector and international donors have made considerable resources available for school and system improvement projects, many of these have not yielded the kinds of learnings that are needed to lift classroom practices at scale.

There are two potential bright points on the horizon. While the overall performance of learners in the Western Cape is far from what we would hope, the Western Cape Education Department’s literacy initiative appears to be showing promising signs of success. Recently highlighted in the McKinsey & Co.’s report “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better”, the Western Cape’s literacy scores, particularly for the poorest three quintiles of schools, have gone up consistently from 2004 to 2008. At the heart of the Western Cape model is the central role of the provincial department in using learner achievement data, and tracking achievement of each and every school and district over time. This allowed the province to identify specific communities with performance challenges, understand local needs and dynamics. The province department met with districts to talk about which schools were doing poorly and which were doing well. While using data effectively was a key component of the improvement initiative, the province also focused on ensuring that basic needs were taken care of, including paying attention to the effectiveness of the school feeding programmes and scholar transport (including providing bicycles in some communities). The province also makes provision for additional instructional time, specifically ensuring that 30 minutes a day are set aside for reading for pleasure. In some important respects, what the Western Cape has done is to use the national policy framework and implement it with fidelity to begin to lift the literacy scores.

Another initiative that shows promise is the Gauteng Primary Literacy Strategy (GPLS). Building on some of the lessons learnt from previous ventures aimed at improving literacy in the province, the project is driven not by outside agencies or organisations, but is embedded in the Curriculum Division within the provincial Department. Two features of the initiative are central. The first is the recognition that learners and teachers need the right combination of learner materials to learn to read. Using what is commonly referred to as a ‘triple cocktail’ package; appropriate graded levelled readers, a sound phonic programme and workbook (to encourage writing), the packages are provided in both first and first additional language (mostly often English) from Grade 1. While not ignoring the importance of learning in children’s first language, the project provides high quality reading instruction in English from the first year of school. The second feature of the initiative is the emphasis on one-on-one instructional coaching. Unlike the ubiquitous training ‘workshops’ or theoretical university qualifications, the focus of capacity building in Gauteng has now shifted towards providing on-site and just-in-time support for teachers with the actual methods they are required to use.

It is too early to say with certainty if these two initiatives will demonstrate to the country as a whole how to address the long-standing problem of primary school underachievement and the huge inequality gap. However, they are showing promise and are gaining attention in a sector not known for sustained success.
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