Three Flunkers sound a warning about our schools
Moshoeshoe Monare urges Education Minister Kader Asmal to find solutions
When Education Minister Kader Asmal introduces a policy or a project, he usually hails it as a world first.
But if his appeal to an international benchmark does not work, he makes reference to the innovation being a breakaway from the apartheid Christian National Education system. And if it has negative implications, he says it's not unique to South Africa.
Asmal's response was no different when he recently announced the "systemic evaluation" report on Grade 3 learners in South Africa.
The report was based on a study of more than 54 000 learners, representing 5% of the Grade 3 learners in 2001 and 2002. The sample was accepted by the department as typical.
There were four fundamental findings :
Grade 3s were not doing well in numeracy, in which they scored 30%. They scored 54% for both literacy and life skills;
Learners spent more than three years in the foundation phase, Grade 1 to 3. The report says 18% of those enrolled in Grade 1 did not reach Grade 3 after three years and describes this as "highly unacceptable";
Only a third of schools that had ordered learning materials received them, while only 27% of schools had libraries. Compounding the problem was that learners from deprived schools came from families who lacked resources such as television, phones, computers, books and magazines; and
A quarter of Grade 3 teachers surveyed had a maths qualification below Grade 9. They spent considerable teaching time attending meetings, studying and doing other extracurricular activities. Five percent of teaching days were lost due to strikes, the unavailability of teachers, late registration and, mainly, teachers falling ill. Only a third of teachers started lessons on time.
The findings say two things: that either the quality of teaching and learning at the foundation phase is appalling, or Asmal is correct when he says the legacy of apartheid has remained an obstacle to transforming the education system.
However, the minister should not dismiss the findings as an international phenomenon because, in two surveys conducted by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, South African children performed dismally, by world standards, in maths.
His political defence mechanism means nothing to a seven-year-old in an Eastern Cape school without textbooks, taught by an unqualified and unprepared teacher.
Asmal's announcement this week that his department would try to address the resources backlog by reviewing funding allocations should be commended.
But it also needs to be supplemented by additional funding to relieve poor provinces and schools of the burden of stretching their resources to cater for poor learners.
The rate at which learners repeat years in the foundation phase is worrying. The department has blamed it on under-age children entering school too soon.
If that is the case, it is compounded by the "age grade norm" policy, which says no child should repeat a grade more than once. The report recommends that the policy should be strictly implemented to ease the repeat rate in the foundation phase.
But that is tantamount to pushing ill-prepared learners into grades they will not be able to manage.
Alternatively, the department could use Grade R to control the inflow of ill-prepared, under-age children into Grade 1.
The report says nearly 58% of learners had some kind of pre-primary schooling before entering Grade 1. That percentage needs to be increased by broadening the number of Grade R classes. The quality of pre-primary schools needs scrutiny because the government's Grade R plan has so far remained just that - a plan.
This year, Gauteng had 31 666 Grade R learners and about 4 000 in pre-primary schools, compared with just over 159 000 in Grade 1. That means most learners enter Grade 1 without being prepared by formal Grade R or pre-primary schooling.
The report also raised concerns about the quality of teachers and their qualifications.
According to the study, learners were given feedback at least every third day but there were cases in which learners were assessed only once a week or once a month.
It's clear that the four fundamental elements of the report have a bearing on the quality of the entry level of schooling - and subsequently on the entire system.
Already Asmal has said there is no need to panic, because the findings are not unique to South Africa.
That may well be true, but the most important point is finding a solution.
He said the findings were just a baseline, measuring the education system at the foundation phase.
But inasmuch as the report serves as the first benchmark for Grade 3 evaluation, the findings should be viewed as warning signals.Any dysfunction in early schooling must be treated as a symptom of unhealthiness in the overall education system.
~ Sunday Times 22/06/2003