SA Today: Why 6 T’s are needed to achieve the 3 R’s

helenzille2011b1Observant “DA watchers” have noticed a perceived contradiction in my recent comments on education. On the one hand, I called for an audit of the matric results. On the other hand, I expressed confidence that education in South Africa had “turned the corner” and is now on the road to steady improvement. How can these statements be reconciled?

The purpose of this newsletter is to set out the reasons for both statements, which will show they are not contradictory.

There are three main reasons for my confidence that “education has turned the corner” (and none have anything to do with the matric results).

These reasons can be summed up as the “3 Ts”: textbooks, time management and testing:

  1. Despite the textbook debacle in Limpopo last year, there is renewed national emphasis on the importance of good Textbooks. This is a marked shift from the educational heresy, proclaimed under OBE (Curriculum 2005) that text-books were unimportant, and an optional educational extra. Textbooks have also improved in quality, and are becoming a priority in provincial education budgets. In the Western Cape we have allocated extra funding to ensure that every child has a good textbook for every subject in every class. This must become the norm throughout the system.
  2. Time management is taken for granted by people who manage time well. That is why it is easy to overlook the importance of efficient time management, especially in teaching and learning. Throughout the education system, there is now a growing understanding that children should be in schools 200 days a year, actively engaged in the learning process for 7 hours each day. If there is one mantra that will change education, it is “be present, punctual and prepared”. Slowly — still far too slowly — this culture is beginning to take root in schools across the board.
  3. Less than five years ago, the only externally moderated Test that learners wrote throughout their school careers, was the national senior certificate, also known as “matric”. Up till that point, the system was “flying blind”. Now externally moderated “annual national assessments” (ANAs) have been introduced in grades 3, 6 and 9. Although improvement is required, the ANAs are beginning to provide a thermometer to “test” outcomes in the system at every key stage of schooling. This enables interventions to occur before children reach matric. In the Western Cape we have additional, internationally moderated tests and intervention teams that address weaknesses as they are diagnosed. External testing acts as a strong spur to performance.

The focus on these “3 Ts” is a big step in the right direction. But the most important “T” of all remains unresolved: Teaching quality.

There are thousands of outstanding teachers throughout our school system who work with enormous dedication and passion. However, according to the recent landmark diagnosis of the core problems in education undertaken by the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU): the core problem in education is that so many teachers either “can’t” or “won’t” do the job required of them. It is a big step forward that all education experts accept the accuracy of this conclusion.

This “T” is far more difficult to address than any of the others. The solutions are not hard to identify, but implementing them effectively is almost impossible given the power of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), not only in schools, but as a voting block within COSATU, the ANC’s alliance partner.

President Jacob Zuma recently stressed that COSATU cannot “co-govern” the country. It is time for him to add, specifically, that SADTU cannot “co-govern” the education system.

And this brings me to my reason for requesting an audit of the matric results.

Many education experts have expressed profound scepticism at the unexplained “leap” in the pass rate in certain provinces. It is extremely difficult, across a large system, to achieve an improvement of over 2% in one year if the numbers of students writing the examination remains more or less constant. As a closer analysis of the results reveals, the provinces with the greatest improvement in the pass rate showed among the highest “casualty rates” of student drop-outs between grade 10 and grade 12. (Article link)

The “culling” of weak students in the system is a practice designed to remove students who are likely to fail, and thus reduce the provincial pass rate. This is a tragic, unintended consequence of a rigid focus on the “pass rate” and not on the more important priority of ensuring that children stay in school and benefit from education for as long as possible. If an improvement in the pass rate is due to better “culling” techniques applied in schools, we are only fooling ourselves if we believe that a higher pass rate reflects educational improvement. We need an audit to know the extent of this practice. We need to know what happens to the educational drop-outs who will likely remain unemployed and unemployable for the rest of their lives. Appropriate intervention is urgently required.

Another crucial reason for an audit would be to investigate the standard of marking across all provinces. The crisis in the quality of marking was emphasised by Professor Sizwe Mabizela, the chairman of the UMALUSI Council at two separate briefings he gave on last year’s matric results. (UMALUSI is the body that sets and monitors standards for education and training in South Africa.) Professor Mabizela noted that competency testing for matric markers was an urgent priority given the poor quality of much of the marking, and ominously suggested that political and union pressure had been brought to bear on the appointment of markers in some provinces.

If a competent standards authority had made similar public comments in any other democracy, they would have made national headlines, and spurred government action.

But, when I followed up Professor Mabizela’s concerns by calling for an audit, Jacob Zuma deflected the issue by calling me a racist who did not want black pupils to succeed! He would do far better to take a stand against SADTU, for resolutely blocking competency tests for matric markers in eight of the nine provinces. But he probably recalls that, when Aaron Motsoaledi was MEC for Education in Limpopo, and insisted that matric markers first write and pass the examination, he failed to keep his job.

Fortunately, in the Western Cape, we are not beholden to SADTU. That has enabled us to introduce rigorous competency tests for markers so that we can be sure the matric results in this province are credible. We have also worked hard to reduce the drop-out rate, and are proud of the fact that 7000 more students wrote the exam last year compared with 2011. Despite the growth in student numbers, we have also improved the pass RATE. During our term of office, the pass rate has risen from 75,1% to 85,1%. Even more importantly, we have achieved a record number of university entrance passes, and greater maths and science participation. This points to improving quality in the system.

These results are a reflection of systemic improvement, not culling or suspect marking. But my confidence in the Western Cape’s system must also be tested by an audit — just like the rest of the country. If there is nothing to hide, surely the scepticism expressed by so many educational experts would automatically trigger such an audit, in the interests of the credibility of the senior certificate qualification. Instead, the ANC plays the race card.

This year the DA will work very hard to support similar systemic improvements across the country. We fully support UMALUSI’s call for national, moderated competency tests for markers. In addition, UMALUSI needs additional resources so that it can undertake reliable standardisation of marking across the provinces. The current practice — where just 20 scripts from each province are cross-checked for marking quality — is entirely inadequate to ensure proper standardisation across the country. And even this rudimentary system got UMALUSI seriously worried about the quality of marking. We must get to the point where we can compare apples with apples — where a pass (or a distinction) in one province means the same as the equivalent result in any other.

We have started to turn the system around. We must now finish the job by tackling the core issue of teaching quality. This will also involve tackling SADTU, with Minister Motshekga (to her credit) seems prepared to do. Added to this we need two additional T’s: Training and Technology, which can do so much to support improvements in teaching.

So if we want to sustain improvements and build a world-class education system we need to focus on all 6 Ts: Teachers of quality, Time Management, Textbooks, Testing, Technology and Training.

Unless we do, we are only fooling ourselves to believe that an improved matric pass rate means the system as a whole is improving. And while Jacob Zuma seeks to deflect attention from the real issues, it is actually his willful blindness that is doing the greatest disservice to the students whose interests he claims to champion.

Helen Zille

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