Education Minister, Angie Motshekga and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
Education Minister, Angie Motshekga and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

ONE night, a long time ago, I went to the home of a Cape Flats family who belonged to a charismatic church to share in their bereavement; the beloved mother of the house had died after a long illness.

I was convinced I had knocked on the wrong door for, by the sounds of it, there was a raving party going on inside. When the door opened, to my utter surprise, it was the woman‘s family and friends singing and dancing in the house. “Welcome, brother! Come inside. Mommy is in a much better place where there is no pain and suffering … Glory, glory, glory!”

What if the raw mark adjustment is in fact intended to compensate for system failure?

I had exactly the same feeling of bewilderment last week. Towards the end of November an international assessment of primary school maths and science placed South African pupils last or second last when compared to other countries. This is a serious tragedy for a nation that invests more in public education than almost any other country with similar (or poorer) economic standing. Sackcloth and ashes? Nope. Barely a month later politicians were literally singing and dancing on stage to celebrate the national senior certificate pass rate. What on earth (or wherever) is going on?

If you have any common sense you would do well to ignore this political spectacle when it comes around every year. Wait for a few days and then you will hear the independent experts — not the ones paid to spin official data — starting to tell you why you were in fact attending a funeral and not a celebratory party.

Listen to South Africa's foremost educational statistician, the young Nic Spaull; pay attention to the practical wisdom of the experienced Nick Taylor, who understands malfunction in the grammar of schooling better than most; and read between the lines when the highly accomplished mathematician John Volmink tells you that what was once simple is now complex for senior high school pupils.

It is a funeral because more than half the pupils who started school did not finish. It is clear that the standards of achievement are now so low that to fail requires a considerable effort on the part of the pupil. In several places pupils who are likely to fail are held back — “culling”, Spaull reluctantly calls it. Mock examinations ensure you have seen some version of the question before; no surprises will be tolerated. Boot camps are convened across the provinces to ensure that last-minute knowledge is pumped into your head. And even when you fail as an individual, there is an across-the-board upward adjustment of the subject pass rate so that many more pupils pass than is merited.

In a normal school system it is acceptable, of course, to adjust raw marks in a subject from one year to the next if there is a significant difference in aggregate pupil performance compared to historic years. No problem with that. An examination set in, say, geography, could be unreasonably more difficult than one written in the previous year. But what if the raw mark adjustment is in fact intended to compensate for system failure? That is, if the cohort of pupils coming through from primary school to high school are academically weaker because of serious dysfunction in the foundation years — as shown in those international assessments of late last year.

So how does one reconcile the disastrous primary school results (the funeral) and the increase in the NSC percentage pass (the party)? Too few pupils reach Grade 12; the few who get there clear a low standards hurdle; and those who don‘t are assisted through the adjustment of results.

How do we fix this?

Develop a 10- to 15-year plan to systematically improve initial learning in reading, writing and numeracy, starting in pre-school and the foundation phase.

This means training and re-training primary teachers with the basic competence for grade teaching; developing assessments to prove they can teach; licensing competent teachers for a five-year period; withdrawing from the classrooms those who cannot teach; attaching an experienced mentor to clusters of primary teachers; preventing unions from disrupting even one day in the school year; and holding trained teachers accountable for results. But before that can happen, a turnaround strategy requires honesty from the politicians about the state of the dead.

So, to our political masters: if you don‘t like funerals, go to a nightclub. If the noise is too much, go to a cemetery. But please don't tell the public that a funeral is a party.

This article first appeared in The Times

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