Why 20% matters

10 November 2015 | Joyce Wanjogu | Opinion

Since the onset of democracy in the country, educationalists have focused on increasing access to schooling and, more recently, to improving the quality of learning outcomes.

We should not lose sight of South Africa’s top-performing schools. Image courtesy of UK Department for International Development

Nick Taylor has posited that about 80% of the schools in South Africa are poor performing (Taylor, 2006). This number is disputed by the Department of Basic Education and researchers such as Nic Spaull have argued that up to 75% of schools in the system are underperforming (Spaull, 2014).

The findings from studies such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) and the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) have been used to support this claim. Notwithstanding this, it is generally accepted that most of these schools were marginalised during apartheid and that concerted efforts to improve infrastructure as well as human capital is necessary. As a result, the main focus by the state and the private sector has been on these types of schools.

However, we should not lose sight of the other part of the system, that is, the top-performing schools in the country, for the following reasons. One, it is very easy for schools to decline. The Epoch and Optima Trusts have tracked the matric performance of 136 secondary schools in the gateway subject of mathematics. We found that, between 2008 and 2013, there has been a steady decline in the quality of mathematics results in a significant percentage of schools (Eric Schollar Associates and Evaluation Research Agency, 2014).

It is a worry that once schools are labelled as functional or, worse still, privileged, they are given little support by the state (other than the normal subsidies that they would qualify for as per the quintile allocations) or the private sector. Unfortunately, these schools are not immune to the external pressures that also impact poor performing schools.

Secondly, the top performing schools are still producing the greater majority of quality passes as a percentage of the total quality passes in the country. Thus, a downward shift in the quality of results in such schools has a significant and negative effect on the country’s ability to compete in the knowledge economy. The converse is also true – that if supported well, these schools have the ability to deliver and produce the quality that the country desperately needs.

This begs the question of what can be done to improve the situation. First, there should be the recognition that all schools need support. This is to help protect what schools are already achieving. It is all too easy for schools to succumb to the constraining pressures from the environment such as socioeconomic issues, policy imperatives, learner attitudes, learning deficits and so on. Moreover, these schools should be challenged to improve the learning outcomes but must be given the autonomy to determine how such improvements should take place.

Similar to the McKinsey study on school systems (2007) which showed that in education reform, education systems move along a continuum, the same can be adopted for our schools to move through from poor to fair, fair to good and for our 20% of schools to move from good to great.

As such, the focus on the dysfunctional or poor performing parts of the system should not be to the detriment of the erstwhile top schools. We should support all schools to fulfil their true potential. As most countries grapple with how to improve their maths and science outcomes, South Africa should protect the gems that it already has in the 20%.