/ 21 February 2014

Letters to the editor: February 21 to 26 2014

The opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Mail & Guardian is a reputable and influential South African paper. The February 7 edition, however, welcomed the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, in a very specific manner – by posting a Zapiro caricature.

Political caricature, in general, is a very special kind of journalism; in a sense, it is some sort of art. To argue with a cartoonist who expresses his personal opinion artistically does not make much sense. But we can share our personal opinions, too, with regard to that piece of journalistic material. The Sochi Olympics built on blood of gays and dissidents? Why are you selling such insane fantasies to fellow South Africans?

Wake up, dear friends: the Cold War is over. Attempts to spite Russia and to put it in an awkward position look particularly bewildering against the background of the smooth start and running of the games, where everyone seems to be happy. (Incidentally, for those who do not know, there is a successful gay bar working in Sochi.)

To see such blast from the past in the M&G, which has always been famous for its professionalism and respect for its readers, eish. – Elena Mamontova, press attaché, Russian embassy

Dr Stephen Taylor's argument ("Matric critics must face reality", February 14) needs to be seriously considered. 

We have to work hard to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools, and what we do with the current matric examinations. In the past South Africa had a differentiated matric system with higher grade, standard grade and lower grade examinations, which meant that children of varying abilities could obtain a matric. [He argued that the pass marks for all six matric subjects should be increased, incrementally, to 50%].

Pupils with low matric averages today are highly unlikely to enter high-stakes degree programmes at good universities. A pupil wanting to study medicine at the University of Cape Town, for example, will need at least an 80% aggregate with the appropriate subject mix, and to pass a benchmark test. 

We need to consolidate the current system and create stability before we embark on more major system changes and curriculum reviews. – Dr Mark Potterton, former chief operating officer of Umalusi, Johannesburg

So "Matric critics must face reality"? They are not the only ones. Taylor should add himself to the list. His "juggling-the-figures" treatise is totally misplaced without any reference to the curriculum of each subject.

Notwithstanding the attempts to dilute the content in the drive to achieve more passes, what is the aim of the minister of basic education? The value of the results of an education system depends on the quality of the teaching force. There has been little improvement in line with these "improved results". 

The end of hope came when the minister thanked members of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union for turning up for work! And this after they downed tools in defiance! Things have gone downhill from there.

As an education adviser for mathematics, who helped to introduce the national curriculum in Britain, I know that improvements in outcomes only come with children developing their knowledge and skills – through improved curricular experience. The compulsory in-service training for serving teachers produced higher results at all primary stages. I proposed such a scheme to the ANC administration in the Western Cape in 1996 but was told they did not need any help.

I was appalled that Taylor would claim "widespread unhappiness among pupils and their parents" as grounds for continuing along the "more passes" route. This approach is more suited to a supermarket than academia. The natural distribution curve for the general populations is no different for South Africans.

Two incidents I recently experienced are worth noting. The first was when my domestic worker asked me to email her daughter's results to a higher-education admissions office. The daughter has obtained a bursary to train as an infant teacher. 

The daughter's results were in the 40% range for some subjects; her maths literacy was 31%. Regardless of her dedication, her academic ability in mathematics would rule her out from being able to develop this area of the curriculum.

But the domestic worker's daughter's maths results were accepted – because she would only teach grade R or grade 1! This misconception compounds the sad fact that, by lowering the percentage for a pass, South Africa is producing students who become deeply disillusioned when many cannot succeed at university. Fix the standard and then set the pass rate. 

No wonder the department is for "basic education", but "better education" will help South Africa to succeed. – Tom Morgan