Cape of Dunces has Education Chiefs worried
by Maureen Marud

      Organisers of a programme to help struggling grade seven pupils in
Cape Town were shocked to find that nearly half of those taking part could
not read or write properly - and this sample is believed to be the tip of
the iceberg.

      An English teacher at a Lavender Hill high school said only five
percent to 10 percent of pupils starting high school in many parts of Cape
Town were up to literacy standard, with the rest at grades two, three or
four levels.

      Literacy levels appeared to be getting worse every year.

      Helen Zille, the minister of education for the Western Cape, said
literacy was one of her gravest concerns and she was anxiously awaiting the
outcome of a study commissioned to test the reading skills of children at
the end of grade three.

            Nearly half were unable to write a short essay
      The Peninsula Association of Youth Clubs ran its own study at schools
after becoming concerned about the increase of crime among youngsters.

      Children thought to be most likely to drop out of school or succumb to
peer pressure and become gang members were identified for the project, but
it was only once researchers started working with the children that they
realised the extent of the problem.

      Achmad Brinkhuis, founder member of the association and ward
councillor for the Ottery area, said the 75 children at five Cape Flats
schools had been asked to write a short essay about a camp on which they had

      Nearly half were unable to do so.

      "We found they were unable to express themselves; the spelling was
shocking and we were unable, for the most part, to make out the words.

            'I am worried the gap may be growing'
      "These children must go to high school next year and they're not
ready. Most of them have behavioural problems and many of them battle with

      Their findings led to the development of the Masifunde project,
meaning "come let us learn", in schools in the Ottery-Grassy Park area.

      Meanwhile, Catherine van Blerk, an English teacher with 16 years'
experience, who set up the Lavender Hill Literacy and Skills Development
Project, said most children entering high school could barely read and had
few comprehension skills.

      She said children were obviously passed through the system without
attaining the necessary skills.

      Full classes, a lack of parental involvement and few resources were
largely to blame. There was also not enough emphasis on reading, with the
result that most children preferred watching television.

      "Children cannot be failed more than twice, so they are pushed through
the system and by the time they get to matric, it's too late.

      "Children are assessed on the basis of projects they do in class and
at home, but it's hard for a teacher to tell how well each student has
mastered a particular subject, because they work together in groups."

      Van Blerk said that for outcomes-based education to work, there should
ideally be a maximum of 25 pupils in a class.

      But many schools had classes of 54 to 58 pupils.

      "We're also faced with the problem that more than 1 000 teachers will
be leaving their posts by June and yet we desperately need them."

      Brinkhuis said many organisations worked with children who were
already achieving success, the so-called "cream of the crop", but it was the
children perceived as "problem kids" or "naughty" who needed the help.

      They had tremendous support from school principals for the project.

      "Classrooms have been made available at each school, but they are
classrooms with a difference. There are no desks and no structure like in a
normal classroom. The children need to feel safe and comfortable and we
relate to each other on a first-name basis."

      Zille said one of her biggest campaigns was to get all schools to
become "reading schools", where at least half an hour was set aside for

      In addition, at least 40 percent of teaching at junior primary level
should be spent on literacy.

      "Every time I go to schools I ask pupils to volunteer to read to me
and, while some are excellent, I am increasingly concerned about the huge
gap in reading skills and I am worried the gap may be growing."

      Zille said she also had serious reservations about Curriculum 2005,
because the basics, in literacy and numeracy, could easily get lost. She
said the assessment policy was also very vague.

      Karen Jansen, a co-ordinator of the Safe Schools Programme, said the
department would fully support the Masifunde project.

      Meetings would be held with the schools to work out sustainable

     ~  Published on the Web by IOL on 2001-03-16 10:10:15