New thinking required to solve the educational challenges

When Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga announced the 2017 matric results on January 04, most South Africans would have expected the Eastern Cape to occupy its rightful position, that of being last out of the nine provinces. And like a recurring episode in a movie, MEC Mandla Makupula and his team gave the usual performance. One which however had a twist in the tale, an incredible 5,7 percent point improvement from 59,3 in 2016 to 65 percent in 2017.

Should we be happy?

Of course, we should celebrate any improvements in the performance of the province’s learners but the key question for the system and the province is what happens to those learners from poor performing schools in Bizana, Mt Ayliff, Matatiele, Kwelera, Fort Beaufort and Zwelitsha who are continually failed by the system and left to stare poverty and unemployment in the face?

What happens to those who couldn’t make matric because educators failed them to ensure that only the best learners get to matric? Those who are unable to perform at the lowest international benchmark of mathematical and science knowledge by Grade 5 as shown by the Trends in Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMMS) 2015 study? Those who can barely read for comprehension in their own languages by the time they reach Grade 4 as shown by the 2016 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Studies (PIRLS)?

Interestingly, as the matric hype continues, the Eastern Cape recorded a massive 22% decline in the number of learners that wrote from 82 902 in 2016 to 67 648 in 2017. Could this be related to the practise of “culling” wherein schools hold back weaker learners from enrolling in matric in order to increase school pass rates? Additionally, only 42.3 percent of learners in the province performed at 30% percent and above in mathematics. This means the majority of learners (57.7) in the province are unable to meet the minimum benchmark in mathematics.

All these issues point to serious systemic challenges within the Eastern Cape department of education and the system as a whole which require the collective effort of all stakeholders. These challenges require both the national and provincial departments to rethink some of strategies, plans and messaging to the public.

One of the first things to rethink is the “system improvement” narrative implicit in the annual increases in matric results. Why should the public concern itself with incremental increases in matric when the system is bleeding at lower levels? As important as matric results are in the context of measuring the performance of the system at exit level, the pitting of schools and learners from vastly different backgrounds against one another only serves to belittle and shame those that are failed by the system in the first instance. The dysfunctionality narrative and the “interventions” for non-conformers only serves to demoralise those who give their best despite the prevailing circumstances. It could be true that one of the reasons the “culling” practise takes place is because schools want to conform or increase pass rates to the detriment of learners. Before schools are called dysfunctional or have provincial officials descend on them for “quick win” interventions, a holistic view of professional development is required as well as deeper reflection on challenges at the lower levels. The same if not more level of effort that is put into the matric performance should be put into the lower phases.

Secondly provincial and district officials need to take more accountability for the poor performance of province. The big question is what kind of discussions take place in Zwelitsha whenever systemic assessment point to a crisis? Sending poor performing teachers or school principals to the nearest university or running Saturday classes doesn’t solve the problem; schools require strong leadership, teachers need in-class support and learners need instructional mastery from teachers. It is only when politics are removed and performance standards are set for officials, principals and teachers will accountability prevail in the system. As the 2018 World Banks Development report noted “Politics can intensify misalignments in education systems, when the vested interests of stakeholders divert systems away from learning. This can happen at various stages, from setting policy goals to designing, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining reforms. Even when many individual actors are committed to learning, a system can remain stuck in a low-learning trap”.

Thirdly, and as many local and international studies have shown, the needs to be greater focus on the coverage of the curriculum and protection teaching and learning time. At the January 2016 Imbizo the Minister noted that teachers in township and rural schools only taught half the number of hours as Model C schools. This view is backed up by research and programme implementation data which show that curriculum coverage was as low as 30 percent in some schools and districts and the Eastern Cape features high as a culprit in this regard. The PIRLS results serve as additional evidence that curriculum coverage with a focus on reading and writing are key to transforming the system.

As we move forward, together, new thinking is required around; how the system recruits, trains and incentivises new teachers; retains, supports and utilises existing teachers; how parental involvement can be increased; what accountability mechanisms need to be in place from school to provincial level and how teaching and learning time will be protected.

Failure to do this will result in more illiterate children who will ultimately add to the millions already subjected to poverty and unemployment. This is not ideal for South Africa and its development aspirations.

To borrow from international educationalist, Charles Dukes and Kavin Ming, the question then for all education officials, academics and practitioners alike is “who among us shall be literate”?

Only time will tell.