Education, Education, Education in South Africa


Dear All,

For voters who can remember the 1997 UK general election which swept a Labour government led by Tony Blair into power after 18 years on Conservative Party rule. In South Africa I’ve been thinking of one of the main slogans by Labour in that election was ‘Education, Education, Education’ which was central to the Party being elected to lead the country. As Local Authority and Provincial elections are due to take place here in August my recent reading of the Mail and Guardian over 2 weeks here on 20 and 27 May has shown how the ANC has completely failed to transform the Education system in a way which removes inequality and allows students from previously disadvantaged majority community to compete on an equal basis with those from other communities.

The articles have made me very angry. This is because recent research in South African Public Schools which are the equivalent of UK State Schools has shown that children who haven’t reached competence levels to read and be literate in their home languages by Grade 4 aged 9 are seriously disadvantaged in their further learning to the extent that they’re unlikely to receive a Matric qualification at the end of their schooling which allows them to attend University.  I’m so exercised by what I’ve read that I’ll summarize the information and outcomes from the research below.

The 20 May Mail and Guardian article suggests in the headline that poor children in South African Public Schools are ‘doomed early’ and the gap between haves and have-nots is already established for life in Primary School. By the time most students in poor Schools reach the end of Grade 3 the chances of them achieving a good Matric pass is unlikely. The education system fails them and affects their chances of doing well in Matric-and even later after they’ve left School.

Research findings by Professor Servaas Van der Berg at Stellenbosch University comes  from a new study of learner’s performance in 2012 and 2013 in Annual National Assessments (ANA’s) which assess children’s literacy and numeracy skills target Grades 1-6 and 9.Van der Berg’s opinion is that the findings have policy implications because early remedial action is needed. Currently ANA’s target Maths performance in Grade 9 which he thinks is the wrong outcome from the Assessments to consider. As a socioeconomic researcher in the Universities Economics Department his view is that the low learning performance for children at poor Schools ‘sabotage’ their chances of doing well in Matric. He is very concerned that the learning gap between children at rich and poor Schools is pre-determined by Grade 4 which strongly affects their chances of progressing to University and future careers.

His research findings and policy recommendations are supported by other educationalists and Nick Taylor, previous head of the Basic Education Department’s National Education Evaluation and Development Unit. Taylor suggests that the National Basic Education Department’s conclusions based on ANA scores is that Primary School education is fine and performance inequity starts in High Schools which wrong as shown by Van der Berg’s study. This is because his research shows that inequities start in the first grade and become more entrenched with each passing grade.

Taylor who is now a researcher based at Jet Education Services adds that making up the backlogs is difficult, indeed impossible. By the end of Grade 3 children’s life chances have been determined through birth and the poor schooling they receive. Van der Berg agrees with Taylor, because his research shows that large learning deficits that become established by the middle of Primary School years and Grade 4 so catching up is not a realistic prospect. Poor cognitive outcomes in the ANA data show that the learning deficit increases slightly more in subsequent grades. These children have little chance of catching up at School or before they started School. By this time he thinks many opportunities are no longer there for them however work to repair the damage at higher Grades must continue for those who may benefit from them.

Ursula Hoadley, Associate Professor on Education at the University of Cape Town agrees that harm is most likely done in the School foundation phase because Grade 3 ends formal teaching of two key fundamental skills which are literacy and numeracy. If these skills aren’t achieved early students are likely to fall further behind because in her view all School education relies on being able to read. Brahm Fleish, a Professor at Wits School of Education agrees with Van der Berg’s views. He adds that the research doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions for older students who start to achieve in their later School years although this cohort is likely to be small, with life opportunities determined by age 9. His view is that interventions in the foundation years, Grades R, 1, 2 and 3 to improve learning in all Schools will lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes for poor children.

Elizabeth Henning, a Professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Johannesburg said the mantra in childhood education is ‘Matric begins at Grade One.’ She thinks the pre-School years are crucial and that this may be where socioeconomic factors start to severely affect a child’s future. She thinks that teachers need to be more aware of child development in the foundation phase. Poor children can have a chance if teachers can be helped to see children as learners, “individual young people who are learning to learn.”

Tsepho Motsepe, General Secretary of Equal Education agrees fully with Van der Berg’s research outcomes. This is that the biggest effort is needed in the early years or before while efforts to remedy damage in higher grades are important. He agrees with Henning’s view that Matric begins at Grade One, in Grade R and in Early Development classrooms. He thinks that young, well qualified teachers are needed in townships and rural areas to fix education.

In the same week Servaas van der Berg wrote an article himself which was titled ‘Focus on reading to fix education.’ He first agreed there has been progress in School performance, more children at School, more black students matriculate and achieve results enabling University attendance and Schools are deracialised. However in most respects the situation remains bleak, almost 50% of children don’t reach Matric, learners repeat classes despite limits on this and many drop out from School at 15 or 16. Local and international tests show extremely weak outcomes. In response government, researchers and others have been trying to determine what’s wrong with the Schools and how the situation can be improved. His research group on socioeconomic policy and Stellenbosch University’s School of Economics are releasing 2 Reports, ‘Identifying binding constraints in education’ and Laying firm foundations: Getting reading right’ to provide some answers’ which is based on studies by a research team working with the Department of Basic Education.

They’ve used a USA based idea from Harvard University and others. However not all education problems can be addressed immediately so the focus has to be on what problems are most frequent. If teachers not being in classes to teach is the main or binding restraint efforts to increase teacher subject knowledge is secondary as it can’t be tackled until teachers are there to teach. Van der Berg previews a Conference which took place last week where the primary restraint is defined as the failure of children to read fluently and with meaning in their home language in their education after Grade 3 at the end in their foundation phase. He writes that the first 3 School years at a period when children learn to read, from then it becomes reading to learn.

Further progress depends on being able to read and with comprehension. Pupils who can’t read are further disadvantaged in Grade 4 when teaching switches to English as happens in most Schools. The 2 University Schools main recommendation to the Department of Basic Education is to set a priority early grade reading goal that all learners must read fluently and with comprehension by the end of Grade 3. This will change priorities for officials to focus on the foundation phase rather than prioritising High Schools because of the current priority being Matric results. He outlines further recommendations which are below.

  • Researchers have found that persevering in learning in a child’s home language improves children’s learning outcomes which covers about 70% of all children learning an African language in the first few grades and even in English It is easier for these children to move to literacy in a second language if they are literate in their home language.
  • The first analysis of large scale oral reading fluency using data from the National Education Evaluation and Development found oral fluency, the ability to read text quickly, accurately and with expression a problem in Schools. This was because the English oral fluency of Grade 5 rural learners is as low as Grade 2 learners in Florida USA. 41% were considered to be non-readers in English, reading so slowly that they couldn’t understand what they were reading and 11% couldn’t read a single word.
  • Another research finding is that the disadvantage of learning in a second language was much reduced if that language was linked to the child’s home language, part of the same language group like Nguni or Sotho. A child speaking an Nguni language is less disadvantaged at School if the foundation stage language is another Nguni language rather than an unrelated one. When it’s impractical for foundation phase children to attend a School teaching in their own home language it’s preferable for them to attend a School teaching in the same language group.
  • Research has also found that children whose parent regularly check their homework, support children reading at home and whose teachers reported that they closely followed the curriculum were performing about 2 years ahead of their peers in Grade 4.

I’ve reached my maximum length for the post and will provide further information on this particular stream when even more will be revealed!

I’ll digress briefly to inform 2 important events have taken place in Paris over the last week, serious flooding about which I know little. An International Conference on Palestine has been arranged and held in Paris by the French president Francois Hollande. He said that his country’s initiative could provide guarantees that the peace will be solid, sustainable and under international supervision. As a first step working groups will meet to develop economic and security incentives for both sides.

While neither the Palestinian or Israeli governments sent representatives for the Conference there were 2 important factors that emerged. The US government has for the first time fully backed a Conference where it supported an end to Israeli occupation and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has backed the French initiative. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is strongly opposed to it and says a deal can only be achieved in direct negotiations. He is however open to elements in a 2002 Arab peace proposal that offered Israel recognition throughout the Arab world after a deal on the Palestinians.

Lastly I return to Johannesburg for just over 2 weeks before flying back to London on 20 June. I’m going to have a busy time here still and am starting on the final phase of my trip which will include joining a Soweto March on 16 June, 40 years since the original event.





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