Whisper it Softly – Our Schools are Getting Better …

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By Paul Pereira



This week Minister of Basic Education Angier Motshekga reiterated the long-stated aim of vastly improving schooling over the next decade. She is brave to do so, given that there are many South Africans who are wilfully blind to any progress in that area, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Motshekga must be wondering if she’s on the same planet as those who decried matric results of just 63% pass in 2008 as proving that the public schooling system is collapsing, and who now dismiss 2013’s improvement to 78% as showing the same thing.

Yet the improvement in pass rates could hardly have surprised, given that we have invested more heavily in this outcome than in any other since 1994, spending a fifth of the national budget on education (7% of GDP). This, says the World Bank, is the developing world’s largest such public investment.

On top of that comes a massive reorientation of teaching, introduction of new syllabi, a redirection of schooling infrastructure (to follow inter-provincial migration patterns), effective text book delivery, teacher training on a Herculean scale (bringing the proportion of qualified teachers from just over half to almost all in just two decades), a plethora of NGO work in this area, and significant private sector educational social investments.

It has also come with the use of independent bodies to evaluate examination quality and marking credibility, along with published ongoing needs assessment evaluations and progress reports on how children in schools are faring.

From the latter we know that our much-deplored maths and science global ratings apply mainly to those in the senior grades, but also that their younger peers are improving year-on-year, and we can expect to reap these in better quality matric results in coming years.

Yet the 2013 matric results were greeted with red herrings aplenty, mostly ignoring the basic understanding that getting schooling right is more process than event. First were the university spokesmen, careful to blame educational outcomes on a government above them, and on school teachers below them. Their own hands, of course, are clean.

They were backed by all manner of “analysts”, an extreme but useful example being one who nonsensically claimed in The New Age newspaper that our classrooms are filled with “unqualified teachers teaching mentally retarded, pregnant and unruly druggies and drunkards”.

Then came the DA, both wanting an “audit” of results (presumably the independent Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training no longer suffices), while anyway claiming that results have been “massaged”.

Fact-free comment has included angst at the “through-put” rate, whereby almost half of children who begin schooling drop out when they reach 15 years old, the end of compulsory attendance. Yet Wits Professor David Everatt points out that the UK dropout rate is almost identical, and no-one has yet blamed the ANC for that.

Government is reconsidering the 30% pass threshold that applies to some subjects. But we forget that under the whites-only Transvaal Education Department, a pass required 40% on higher grade. But if you only managed 25%, you passed on standard grade.

Meanwhile, we’ve produced more university entrance holders than we have tertiary institution seats, and doubled higher education graduates these 20 years. We are getting there. Just don’t say it too loudly.

– The Citizen, 17 January 2014.