The damage schools do to children

Is South African public schooling damaging some children’s natural potential? Data the basic education department released this week describe rock-bottom levels of literacy and numeracy among primary-school children.

But comparisons of these figures with unreleased test results from 2008 suggest that the performance of many children assessed then has since deteriorated.

On Tuesday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga released the 2011 Annual National Assessment (ANA) results, the first to be announced after testing began in 2008.

“We insist on making the ANA results public so that parents, schools and communities can act positively on the information, well aware of areas deserving of attention in the education of their children,” she said.

This year’s ANA tested six-million learners—that is, half of all South African schoolchildren and about 10 times as many as wrote matric last year.
The tests were written by grades 1 to 6 in February.

Overall, in literacy, the national average performance of grade 3s was 35% and in numeracy 28%, Motshekga announced. Among grade 6s, the national average for languages was 28% and for maths 30%.

These are broadly similar to the ANA results for 2008, according to an unpublished departmental document in the Mail & Guardian‘s possession.

Reporting on this document in December 2009, the M&G revealed the results of the first ANAs, conducted on a much smaller sample of learners than this year’s and confined to grades 3 and 6.

These results showed that 60% of grade 3s scored below 50% for numeracy and literacy and 75% of grade 6s achieved less than 50%.

But a more detailed comparison of 2008’s results with this year’s suggests some learner performances since then may have worsened.

For instance, more grade 3s this year scored under 35% for literacy than in 2008. And more grade 6s this year scored under 35% for numeracy than in 2008.

Declining marks?

  • In 2008 36% of grade 3s scored under 35% in literacy, but this year 44% did;

  • In 2008 15% of grade 3s scored more than 70% in ­numeracy, but this year only 5% did;

  • In 2008, 54% of grade 6s scored under 35% in numeracy, but this year, 64% did; and

  • In 2008, nearly 10% of grade 6s scored above 70% in languages, but this year only 7% did.

Questions about how the 2011 data illuminate the effects of schooling on children’s performance are sharpened by the fact that a target set in 2008 by Motshekga’s predecessor, Naledi Pandor, for this year appears to have been ignored this week.

In March 2008, Pandor gazetted her four-year Foundations for Learning Campaign “to improve the reading, writing and numeracy abilities of all South African children”.

By 2011, “all primary schools will be expected to increase average learner performance in literacy/language and numeracy/mathematics to no less than 50%”, Pandor’s notice in the Government Gazette said.

Yet this week, the department’s ANA documents merely set a new target and date—60% achievement by 2014. The department did not answer the M&G‘s query about why Pandor’s earlier target (of 50% by this year) appeared to have been forgotten.

A comparison between 2008’s grade 3s and this year’s grade 6s also suggests a worsening performance.

For instance:

  • 36% of 2008’s grade 3s scored under 35% in literacy, but 57% of this year’s grade 6s did so; and

  • 15% of 2008’s grade 3s scored more than 70% in numeracy, but only 5% of this year’s grade 6s did so.

The 2011 results as a whole will provide tools for diagnosing what problems schools are experiencing and where, and so what kinds of remedies are needed, Motshekga said.

But educationists who spoke to the M&G this week said the results revealed problems that had been clearly identified for years. This made them question the efficacy of government education policies and the interventions already made.

The strong correlation between poverty and poor performance shown up by the ANA is a clear instance of its results corroborating the already known, said Brian Ramadiro, education researcher at Fort Hare University.

The department’s report noted that, “especially for the children of the poorest and most disadvantaged South Africans”, the main finding is that “in 2011, learner performance continued to be well below what it should be”.

“The analysis confirms that the greatest need for support lies in [the poorest 40% of schools] largely [in] rural and the poorest communities,” the report said.

For Ramadiro, “improvement can hardly be expected in schools where there is a lack of basic amenities such as classrooms with adequate lighting, electricity and toilets”.

“Politicians might be disappointed by the ANA results, but parents and teachers are devastated by them,” he said. “The more money a school can charge [in fees], the better its results.”

University of Johannesburg senior researcher Salim Vally pointed to a host of data, such as the education department’s own similar assessments in 2001, 2004 and 2007, numerous international tests of numeracy and literacy in which South Africa participated and the M&G‘s revelation of the 2008 ANA results.

“If the ANAs are a diagnostic tool, they’re diagnosing facts we’ve known for at least a decade,” Vally said.

Yet government is still not joining the dots between schools and other education sectors, especially early childhood development (ECD) and adult basic education and training (Abet), he said.

“You can’t speak of schooling in isolation from communities. On one side of the problem, children are poorly prepared to enter school because ECD provision is so weak and under-resourced,” Vally said.

“And ECD involves many earlier years of a child’s nutritional well-being and security, for instance, than only the reception year [grade R] the minister said the results showed needed strengthening.”

On the other side of the problem, the poor childhood literacy levels confirmed by the ANA must be understood partly with reference to South Africa’s high adult illiteracy rates, Vally said.

“Abet experts such as John Aitchison have been pointing that out for years too,” he said, “yet government keeps that sector grossly under-resourced as well.”

It follows that many children enter school without ever having encountered reading materials of any kind and, once at school, often lack adult reinforcement at home of “the joys of reading”, Vally said.

Other educationists identified for the M&G the questions and further investigation the ANA results must provoke:

  • “It’s marvellous to have the data, but they will need very careful refining and analysis to show us how to use them”—Servaas van den Berg, University of Stellenbosch professor and co-researcher on this year’s report titled Low-quality Education as a Poverty Trap;

  • “The lack of meaningful information on lower grades allows the public and the department to accept high matric pass rates as believable. So these ANAs might force some interesting questions about the 2010 matric results”—Nan Yeld, University of Cape Town professor; and

  • “The mere fact of testing will not miraculously lead to better results. In fact, it can be detrimental to learning if it leads merely to teaching to the test”—Carol Bertram, acting deputy head of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Additional reporting by Amanda Strydom

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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