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Poverty damns SA’s children to ignorance

Shocking new school tests of literacy and numeracy show powerful links between poverty and poor classroom performance. Other factors contributing to low achievement by the majority of South Africa’s schoolchildren include curriculum chaos and inadequate district support, especially for under-resourced and rural schools.

The Annual National Assessment (ANA) results released on Tuesday by the department of basic education revealed low results across all schools but highlighted a close correlation between poor levels of achievement and low socioeconomic status.

The ANAs tested six million children — half of all the country’s schoolchildren — in February from grades one to six on their literacy and numeracy. Overall, the results showed that “the quality of basic education is still well below what it should be”, the department announced.

In grade three, the national average performance in literacy was 35% and numeracy at 28%. In grade six the national average in languages was 28%, and for mathematics 30%.

The provincial breakdown of results showed that better-resourced provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng consistently performed higher in all categories than the poorer provinces, including Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and Northern Cape.

Provincial disparities
In the grade three results for literacy the Western Cape had an average of 43% while the average for Mpumalanga was 27%. Mpumalanga obtained 19% for grade three numeracy, where the Western Cape scored 36%. In grade six mathematics, Gauteng obtained 37% while both Limpopo and Mpumalanga scored 25%.

The department noted that the scores in the Eastern Cape appeared anomalously high in some tests and suggested assessment problems such as varying marking and standardisation processes were to blame.

Releasing the results on Tuesday, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said the results would provide tools for diagnosing what problems schools were experiencing, and where. District support was one such problem, she said.

“The administration of the ANA uncovered problems within specific districts not only in terms of gaps in human and material resources, but also in terms of the support offered to schools by district officials,” Motshekga said.

In the poorest 40% of schools, the report indicates that “almost all their learners [are] performing at the ‘not achieved’ level in grade six mathematics”. “Not achieved” refers to marks of 35% and less. The department also noted that overall performance was low, “especially for the children of the poorest and most disadvantaged South Africans”.

Early Childhood Development
Experts who spoke to the Mail & Guardian pointed to poor resources, lack of mother-tongue tuition and weak early childhood development (that is, ECD — the years before children enter school) as major reasons for underperformance.

“The more money one’s school can charge, the better the results of the tests would be,” said Brian Ramadiro, education researcher at the University of Fort Hare. Improvement could not be expected in schools where there was a lack of basic amenities such as classrooms with adequate lighting, electricity and toilets, he said.

Mother-tongue tuition poses another major problem, Ramadiro said. In grades one to three, policy is that pupils are taught in their mother tongues (though this does not always happen). But from grade four, children are taught in English or in Afrikaans, often by teachers for whom these are also second languages.

“One will not succeed if you teach through a medium that the children and the teacher don’t understand very well,” Ramadiro said.

Since the advent of democracy 17 years ago, there had also been too many changes in curriculum structure, said Ramadiro. “Ultimately, we have not been giving any curriculum a chance to succeed.”

Salim Vally, a senior researcher at the University of Johannesburg, said the test results are more significant than the matric results — 600 000 matrics write the grade 12 exam but six million wrote the ANAs.

The results “show the inequality in our country but also shadow the inequality between provinces”, Vally said.

The problem starts well before a child enters school, he said. ECD — which is meant to provide healthcare, security and learning for children between one and six years old — is “crucial but terribly neglected”, Vally said.

By the time a child reaches grade R, many have not interacted at all with learning tools such as books. “Public libraries and reading groups are crucial as an intervention,” he said.

Grade R should be considered the most important stepping stone before starting grade one, yet it is the most neglected and its teachers are not considered as important as they ought to be. “A lack of support and class sizes are among the biggest problems grade R teachers face,” said Vally.

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Amanda Strydom
Amanda Strydom is the Mail & Guardian online's night editor. With a background in science and journalism, she has a black belt third dan in ballet and, according to a statistical analysis of the past three years, reads 2.73 books every week. She never finishes her tea, although she won't say no to a cupcake. But only just this once.

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