Curriculum 'must bed down'
The annual matric results provide an indication of how the whole basic education system is performing, but they are not the principal measure of its quality.
This emerged clearly at an Umalusi conference last week where hundreds of delegates discussed the standards in education and training. The council for assuring the quality of state education convened local and international education experts and government officials for a three-day focus on what it dubbed “the challenge”.
“The [matric] assessment in which Umalusi is involved comes at the tail end of things,” Umalusi chief executive Mafu Rakometsi told the Mail & Guardian at the conference. All the processes preceding it were more critical, but the “first of all is the curriculum itself”.
The conference made it clear that stabilising the curriculum was key to achieving quality standards, he said.
“The curriculum must be allowed to settle. It must be allowed to crystallise to the point where teachers can say ‘we now have full mastery of the curriculum’. Instability will lead to dysfunction.”
Training teachers and their professional development were the next most important steps. “The education system is as good as its teachers. They must be confident and competent in the curriculum they present,” Rakometsi said.
“What would be unfortunate is if teachers are thrown into the deep end and they are not given adequate support and training on how to settle new curriculum changes.”
He said that school infrastructure and resources affected the competence of teachers. Textbooks, proper libraries and other tools for teachers were among the factors that “set standards in education”.
There was repeated criticism of the government’s many curriculum changes, which some delegates said were destabilising.
University of KwaZulu-Natal deputy vice-chancellor Renuka Vithal said the country’s education was suffering largely because successive national ministers changed the school curriculum that they each had inherited.
Overtaken by political imperatives
Because of the “vicious circle of continuous change”, the “system is now dysfunctional”, Vithal said in a panel discussion. “We have produced this dysfunction. We allowed political imperatives to overtake education.”
She said interventions did not consider teachers’ needs broadly.
During a lively debate, some panellists defended the revisions to the curriculum. “All the changes have been done in collaboration with experts. Changes will continue to happen even if criticism mounts,” one said.
Brian O’Connell, vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, retorted: “Of course, there must be change, but it must be thoughtful.”
Discussing the annual preoccupation with the matric results, Mandla Higa, principal of the Umtata Christian School, said “noise” should be made not only about them but also about what had been done throughout the year.
The minimum subject percentages required to pass matric have long been a target of criticism.
One of the most outspoken -critics on the subject, Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the Free State University, proposed during a -keynote address that the minimum pass mark be 50%.
All a pupil needs to pass matric at present is 30% in two of six subjects and 40% in four.
Rakometsi said that once the fundamentals had been sorted out, South Africa would be in a position to celebrate the standard of its public education system.
“The conference has said 30% is not challenging enough. It does not send the right message, but arriving at any other percentage should not be a thumb-suck,” he said.
“Anyone can come with whatever percentage and say 50% or 70%, but the question would be: ‘What is that 50% or 70%?’
“We need to do research that would inform the position we ultimately take as a country,” Rakometsi said.