Bad results, even worse questions

The surprise surely is that anyone is surprised. We report elsewhere on the appalling levels of literacy and numeracy among primary school children described by the Annual National Assessment (ANA) results released this week.

Written by grades one to six pupils earlier this year, these tests show, for instance, a national average performance in literacy of 35% among grade threes and 30% in maths among grade sixes.

Overall, as the basic education department itself concludes in the ANA documentation, “the quality of basic education is still well below what it should be”.

That is understatement. Let us first acknowledge, though, that the department’s release of these results is itself a major step forward. Some official coyness in the past, stemming perhaps from a failure of political courage, has on occasion resulted in less transparency than this — withdrawing South Africa from participation in international maths and science testing, for example, or keeping the ANA results themselves secret until now (this testing began in 2008).

In that light, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga must be applauded for taking this step — and she was correct to conclude on Tuesday that the results paint a picture that is “unacceptable for a nation whose democratic promise included that of education and skills development”.

She said that, dismal as they were, the ANA results would provide valuable tools for suggesting what interventions were needed. This too seems true but it is worth observing that, by Wednesday, the Democratic Alliance was already questioning how accurately the results could do that.

These doubts aside, Motshekga herself walked the fence between suggesting the results told us much we never knew and asserting that they confirmed what we already know.

But Dr Stuart Saunders, in his article “In a worse state than we think”, which was written before the ANA results, documents powerful indicators over many years that, as he puts it, suggest we are not getting much bang for our budget buck. And, like Motshekga herself, he talks of this as a failure to fulfil long-standing political promises of better lives and prospects for all.

So why Motshekga’s equivocations? Is it because admitting that these results are not surprising would too nakedly suggest the failure of too many government policies and interventions? If so, that is a loss of political nerve on the minister’s part — and a worrying one if it gives us an early warning that government action will be less than drastic.

To illustrate just how drastic official action needs to be, consider one set of ANA statistics buried well beneath those publicised. These show a steady grade-by-grade decline in children’s performance in both literacy and numeracy, from a high of about 60% in grade one to 30% in grade six.

What are schools doing to our children? The ANAs will have to provoke questions as basic and awful as that.

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David Macfarlane
Guest Author

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