Working the System

Efforts to promote maths and science have not been wholly successful.

AFTER the failure of a key initiative to improve maths and science performances, the search for the winning formula continues.

In 1994, educationalists within the Mass Democratic Movement successfully lobbied the National Education Department to establish a project called Students and Youth into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (System), based on the the premise that a person’s marks would improve under the right conditions.

Five thousand students were projected to pass through System each year. This was later adjusted to 120 graduates per centre, due to budgetary constraints. One centre was established in each province. A unique curriculum was developed and the pilot phase launched in November 1995. Phase one was a one-year recovery programme targeted primarily at matric failures. Phase two consisted of a nationally recognised System teaching diploma, intended to feed graduates back into the field.

Four years later, the project hasn’t lived up to expectations. National pass rates for the 800-plus students who completed the recovery programme were about 30%, according to James Mackay, System’s national coordinator for staff and students. No students have yet completed the four-year second phase of the project.

Reasons for the lack of success are complex, but stem mainly from the unforeseen difficulties in “getting a large scale project to work within government,” according to Michael Kahn, newly appointed science and technology advisor to Minister of Education Kader Asmal and who played a key role in conceptualising System. It is now up to provincial education departments to decide whether to continue funding or not.

According to Kahn, “constitutional problems” hampered the delivery of funds and bureaucratic procedures delayed implementation. Compounding things was the fact that the syllabus, developed for continuous assessment, was ultimately tested by a single exam.

According to Kahn, System was a “brave attempt in a time when a new government was trying to stabilise itself”. He maintains that System was a “qualified success: it set out to show that a number of people could succeed, given the right conditions. Some got matric exemptions.”

At the Western Cape campus the System staff have taken things into their own hands and started a new kind of school. Their aim remains the same, but their methods are perhaps less democratic as a strict selection procedure is the basis of a guaranteed matric exemption.

Based at Good Hope College in Khayalitsha, the Centre of Science and Technology (Cosat) opened its doors in January 1999. The school offers a three-year academic course equivalent to Grades 10 to 12. Grade 9 students that show talent in the sciences are recruited by Cosat from underprivileged schools. At present, the school has enrolled a hundred learners in Grades 10 and 11. The first Grade 12 class will graduate in 2001, when they are likely to earn scholarships and bursaries to enter the fields of their choice.

The nine schools neighbouring Cosat produced only nine higher grade passes in maths and science in 1998, indicating the low impact of various support programmes. Staff at Cosat strongly believe the most effective intervention is to offer a full-time specialised science and technology training programme which prepares learners for the rigorous challenges of academic life.

Due to an expanded curriculum the school day lasts from 08h30 until 15h45. A major focus at Cosat is curriculum development. Many of the curricular innovations pioneered in System remain, and communication and cognitive skills also receive prominent attention. The school boasts several physics and chemistry laboratories, a biology laboratory and a technology workroom, as well as a computer room containing 20 stations connected to the Internet, sponsored by Telkom. Either technology or entrepreneurship are compulsory seventh subjects.

So far the Cosat initiative has won the approval of the Western Cape Education Department, which is paying some of its salaries. It has also attracted interest from industry, and further corporate partnerships look likely. The results are already evident. This year its students walked off with several prizes at the Expo for Young Scientists held at UCT.

Peter Oxenham, a teacher at the school, says that Cosat is setting an example to schools wishing to specialise. He believes that “classes shouldn’t be split” and schools which offer subjects taken by only a handful of students “are inefficient”. Specialisation could well become an emerging trend in the further education and training band and if done on a similar scale to Cosat, it could succeed.

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, February 8, 2000.