It is almost impossible to rescue hundreds of thousands of grade 10 and 11 students from imminent failure and dropout because their learning deficits have remained unaddressed for too long, a recent report argues.
With matric exams starting next week, the new research shows that by the time Eastern Cape children reach grade nine they are on average "almost three full grades' worth of learning behind the curriculum", Stellenbosch University education researcher Nic Spaull's report says.
The Centre for Development and Enterprise commissioned Spaull's report and another by St Augustine College professor of economics Charles Simkins, which examines performance in the country's education system more widely. The two reports comprise the bulk of a larger study the centre released last week under the title Mathematics Outcomes in South African Schools: What Are the Facts? What Should be Done?
Spaull's report combines different surveys to generate damning datasets that include figures from the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) conducted between 2007 and 2011. For pupils who fail to grasp basic maths and reading skills in their early school years, learning deficits accumulate over time until they eventually become "insurmountable", Spaull's report concludes.
His analysis of the third Sacmeq survey, conducted in 2007, shows that 40% of grade six South African pupils "were 'non-numerate' since they had not moved beyond the mechanical skills needed for basic calculation and simple shape recognition". It also shows that 27% of grade six pupils were "functionally illiterate since they could not go beyond decoding text and matching words to pictures".
Spaull uses the achievement level of the average child in "quintile five" schools (that is, the wealthiest 20% to 25% nationally) as a benchmark, and compares this with the average outcomes of children in the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape.
A widening gap
"As early as grade three one can see the large discrepancy between the average child in the Eastern Cape and the grade-appropriate benchmark … [It] shows they are actually at a grade one level." The gap widens by grade, so that by the time pupils get to grade nine they enter a "zone of improbable progress".
By contrast, the average grade nine child in the Western Cape is only one grade below the "on-track" level, Spaull shows. Pouring resources into high school interventions rather than fixing deficits early on is therefore "especially short-sighted".
Spaull told the Mail & Guardian: "Education experts have said for a while now that it is too late to try to fix problems when pupils get to grade 10 or 11. We've always known that these deficits existed but now we can show it empirically. The longer we take to intervene the larger the deficits become. How do you take a grade 11 student who is really operating at a grade eight level and get them to pass matric in one year?"
Craig Paxton, director of Eastern Cape-based nongovernmental organisation Axium Education, said by the time the organisation meets pupils in grade 10, "the gaps in language and maths are so vast that to plug the holes and teach new content in three years is an impossible task".
"There seems to be no experience of mastery, of incremental acquisition of concepts year by year, grade to grade, for 13 years," he said.
The sharp contrast between deficits in the poorer Eastern Cape and the wealthier Western Cape can partly be put down to pupils' socioeconomic backgrounds — and new research in Spaull's report shows that this has an even bigger effect on pupils than was previously known.
Spaull said 37% of the differences in South African pupils' reading performance can be explained "purely by looking at household wealth and parental education, without even looking at student ability or motivation — which is really shocking".
Pupils in the wealthiest 25% of schools perform drastically better than the rest of the poorer 75%, he said. But even this top 25% is performing badly when compared with other middle-income countries such as Chile, Turkey or Tunisia.
The 2011 Timss study found that the wealthiest 20% of South African schools performed "slightly below" the national average for schools in Turkey and Lebanon and our quintile five schools performed "noticeably worse" than theirs. Drawing on statistician Andreas Schleicher's research, he said: "Many countries … manage to provide quality education to all pupils, not only the rich … [showing] that 'poor performance … does not automatically follow from a disadvantaged background' as it does in South Africa".
Ursula Hoadley, associate professor in the school of education at the University of Cape Town, said research comparing schools in South African and Botswana — also a middle-income country but with better results — showed that teachers in the latter had better content knowledge.
"Attending to teachers' own knowledge of the subjects they teach and how to teach them should be an absolute priority in tackling the problems of schooling in South Africa," she said.