Meaningful partners in education

We agree with the argument of Sarah Gravett and Gillian Godsell that comparisons are odious when it comes to South African education.

The results of the matric examinations of the department of basic education (DBE) and the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) should not be compared for a number of reasons.

Although based on the same national curriculum statements, they serve different school populations: the huge public school grade 12 cohort (more than 600 000 candidates) and the small IEB one (fewer than 10 000).

As Gravett and Godsell correctly note, the majority of independent schools in fact write the same national senior certificate (NSC) examination as public schools. Only 172 of roughly 500 independent secondary schools wrote the IEB examination in 2010.

The state examination serves a very heterogeneous, widely diverse cohort of candidates with a broad range of ability levels, many with illiterate parents and no texts in their homes. By contrast, the IEB candidates are more homogenous because generally they come from middle-class families, across the low to upper middle-class spectrum, where most parents have had secondary or tertiary education.

It is important to note that the learners in the IEB examinations do not all come from high-fee schools. In fact, the IEB schools include mid- and low-fee ones, with several consisting only of disadvantaged black learners. There has been a steady increase in the number of these schools choosing to write the IEB — not surprisingly, because they dominate the sector.

The state and the IEB’s assessment approaches are also different. The IEB approach is to emphasise innovative and probing assessment to tap high-order thinking skills. By this means it actively uses assessment to improve teaching and learning in the classroom and in turn this provides learners with the attitudes, skills and knowledge necessary for success in higher education. Given its candidates, most of whom intend to study at university, the balance in the IEB examinations tends towards the high end of cognitive demand.

By contrast, the state examinations have to achieve a different balance of low-end and high-end thinking skills to cater for the broader spread of abilities in a massified education system.

Because their contexts and approaches are different, it follows that the state and IEB examinations will be different because each is ‘fit for purpose” to serve its respective candidates properly.

With their differences the state and IEB should be seen as complementary partners in assessment. For instance, using its schools as ‘test beds” for assessment development, the IEB has piloted innovative approaches that have been adopted by the state system. The IEB also works in close partnership with the DBE to assess, on its behalf, all the non-official foreign languages as well as other subjects such as sports and exercise science, equine studies and marine economics.

Let’s be proud of the public and independent schools that produced excellent results (many against the odds) and stop using matric results to debate the strengths and weakness of public and private education. Quality education is about a lot more than matric results.

Our country has important lessons to learn from what went right and what must be improved in the 2010 NSC examinations. All sectors and citizens need to contribute to making the 2011 educational experience and assessment of our learners better. We need to harness all education resources — public and independent — to tackle our education challenges.

The roles that the associations of the independent schools and the IEB play in building our education system are recognised by the DBE and have been publicly acknowledged by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Our organisations and schools are committed to the national vision of quality education for all and will continue to contribute to that national education project.

Dr Jane Hofmeyr is executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa and Anne Oberholzer is chief executive of the Independent Examinations Board

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