Fix SA education system by lifting standards and empowering principals

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Fix SA education system by lifting standards and empowering principals

Category : 2014 , December , Education


The release of SA’s annual national assessment (ANA) results for schools last week has again given us reason to pause and reassess. A mathematics pass rate for grade 9s of only 10.8% is dismal and totally unacceptable. I am afraid that this result confirms the poor ranking that SA achieved in the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Information Technology Report of 2014. SA ranked 148 out of 148 countries in the quality of Maths and Science education section and was the only country in the report to score below 2 out of a possible 7!

The irony is that in the same report, SA scored very highly when it came to effectiveness of law-making bodies, judicial independence, efficiency of legal framework and intellectual property protection. Furthermore, SA is rated very highly insofar as its adherence to accounting and auditing standards according to a 2013 World Bank report. We were also rated number 1 out of 144 countries for three years by the WEF in the auditing and reporting standards category!

How can we possibly reconcile our dismal performance on the education front (Maths and Science) with our exceptional performance on the accounting and auditing front? The answer is STANDARDS! When it comes to accounting and auditing, SA has adopted all the relevant global standards from the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) to the King III code on corporate governance. In fact, SA was one of the earliest adopters of these standards. On the flip side, when it comes to education, SA is not an adopter of international standards and sets its own internal standards that are extremely low compared to other countries in the world.

To pass the Senior Certificate exam in SA, pupils must pass 6 of the 8 subjects that they take, with 3 subjects passed at a level of 40% (including home language) and a further 3 subjects at a level of 30%. If they want to study further, the pass rate is higher with University Exemption requiring a home language pass at 40%, four subjects from a designated list at 50% and a further 2 at only 30%.

Such low pass marks compare very unfavourably with countries in the rest of the world. Some examples are:

  • In Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Cuba and the United States you need 60% to pass;
  • In Germany, France, Turkey, Iran, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Singapore, Egypt, Botswana, Mozambique and Canada you need 50%;
  • In Britain, Ireland, India and Malaysia, Argentina, Nigeria, Zambia and Kenya you need 40%;
  • There are some countries, including Russia and the Philippines where you need to score even higher than 60% to pass; and
  • There are a few countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh where the pass rates are lower and more in line with our current standards.

There was some good news a few weeks ago when it was announced that the pass mark for grade 7, 8 and 9 pupils would be raised to 50% for their home language and 40% for their second language. However, this does not address the low standards set for other subjects and for an overall pass.

In addition to the low standards we set for ourselves in SA, there are also operational problems in a large proportion of our schools. Who of us have not been exposed to schools that constantly start late and end early, schools where a large number of teachers are absent every day, pupils that stay away from school without sanction, school books that are not delivered on time and facilities that do not work properly?

At the same time, we cannot simply blame the operational problems we see in schools on a lack of funds. SA ranks 60 out of 194 countries when it comes to educational spending as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product – a measure of the size of an economy). On a per pupil basis, SA also ranks very highly (60 out of 150), outspending countries like Argentina, Iran, Mexico, Singapore, Indonesia, Venezuela, India, Botswana and Zambia. We need to look elsewhere for answers.

The efficient running of a school is to a large extent the responsibility of the principal. It is up to the principal to make sure that school starts on time, that teachers are motivated to teach effectively and encourage their students to perform above minimum requirements, that facilities are acceptable (even if the school is short of money, there are ways to involve the community to improve facilities), that students are respectful and do not disrupt classes, etc.

There are shining examples in SA of how principals can make a difference such as the Matthew Goniwe Memorial High School and Masiyele Secondary School in the Western Cape, Bhukulani Secondary School in Gauteng, Thengwe and Mbilwi Secondary Schools in Limpopo, Menzi and Velabahleke High in KZN and many others!

Such schools have strong principals and dedicated teaching staff. They focus on getting the basics right (full teaching day, high attendance, availability of school books, adequate facilities) and spend a great deal of time making sure that time in the classroom is spent effectively. Pupils are encouraged to achieve top marks and not just a pass mark, time is spent on identifying why pupils get answers wrong and are given the right answers after tests, pupils are encouraged to participate in class, excellence is expected and rewarded. It is vital that underperforming principals in SA up their game and start running schools more efficiently. This can be achieved – the positive examples are there!

However, even strong principals cannot ensure that their schools perform at their peak without the help of their teaching staff. In SA, there is a meaningful problem with underperforming teachers and in most cases, principals have their hands tied in dealing with them. As it stands now, it is almost impossible for a lazy teacher to be fired in the SA education system. As public sector employees that have strong union representation, poor teachers are protected from sanctioning and as a result, it is difficult to rid the system of its weak links. The only tools that principals and governing bodies have at the moment are during the employment process and through using their powers of persuasion.

If we really want to improve our education system, it is important that principals are given more power to deal with poor teachers. This however will require a change in the balance of power between government and unions. A minimum set of standards needs to set that teachers have to adhere to and if these standards are not met, an official sanctioning process should follow that could result in dismissal. Once such a system is in place, there could be the potential to better monitor the results that teachers achieve from their pupils so that the excellent teachers can be rewarded and the underperforming teachers can be encouraged to do better (and given the tools to do better).

The education problem in SA is a real and glaring one and is becoming a huge handicap for this country’s success going forward. It needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency:

  • Standards need to be lifted (even more so than the recent changes);
  • Government must address the balance of power between itself and the teacher unions;
  • School books must be delivered and broken facilities must be fixed;
  • Top-performing principals must be held up as shining examples and underperforming principals must raise their game; and
  • Teachers must be empowered to get the best out of their pupils, acknowledged if they do and sanctioned if they don’t.

What can you do to make a difference? Firstly, if you have school-going children, get more involved with the school. Demand excellence from your principal and teachers and offer your help if facilities need repair or improvement. Make sure that your children do their part in attending, arriving on time, doing their homework and demand top results from them, not just a pass mark. Secondly, you can support the schools that are success stories. Many of them are hampered from accepting more pupils due to financial constraints. Get involved with these schools, either financially or through giving them some of your time. Finally, put pressure on government and unions to provide us with a better education outcome in SA. We deserve excellence!

What do you think? Let me know of the success stories of schools in your area. I would love some feedback.

In the mean time, keep your talk straight!