Editorial: Think about the pupils, Sadtu

One of many Sadtu protest marches.  (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

One of many Sadtu protest marches. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

For years, South Africa has been wrongly using grade 12 as a measure of the quality of its education system and as a barometer to assess the performance of its pupils. Despite improvement to the dismal matric results achieved in 1990s, the recent high matric pass rate has not translated into quality of education. Therefore, matric results were never a good predictor.
In fact, they reflected a tragic faultline in the system.

The results of this are a relatively high drop-out rate, the culling of pupils at lower grades to achieve a good matric pass rate and poor performance at tertiary level, resulting in a lower graduation rate.

This is why the country should spend energy and resources on the annual national assessments (ANA) – countrywide numeracy and literacy tests for all grades lower than matric. Through the ANA, the education system will be able to diagnose and identify faults early. More than 7.3-million pupils wrote the ANA last year, and the results showed problems in senior grades, especially in numeracy. With the proper prognosis, such results will give authorities, teachers, pupils and parents three years to fix the problem.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the ANA was “premised on the principle that effective testing will afford learners the opportunity to demonstrate relevant skills and understanding, and also assist the education system with diagnosing learner shortcomings”.

We agree with her. But it is disturbing to hear intense squabbles about when these assessments will be written this year. Motshekga and her provincial MECs insist that they will be administered in December. But most of the country’s major teachers’ unions, led by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), are demanding postponement to February next year. The unions believe “that the ANA, in its current form, is not in the best interest of our learners or for the provision of quality education”.

They argue that they agreed with the department “to develop a remodelled, systemic and diagnostic tool instead of the ANA in its current form”. The current standoff is a reflection of a long-standing toxic relationship between the teachers’ unions, especially Sadtu, and the education authorities.

Sadtu tends to believe that it can dictate education policy. Several times, as early as 1998, it threatened to disrupt exams unless its members received better pay. In 2002, it opposed an evaluation system aimed at holding teachers accountable for their performance. It has also interfered in the appointment and promotion of teachers.

Although we agree that implementing badly modelled assessments could be disastrous, the threat to boycott the assessments is uncalled for.

On the other hand, Motshekga can be equally obstinate and emotional, especially in the face of a crisis. Her impulsive response could fuel an already volatile situation. She must remember that, without the unions, it would be almost impossible to execute any policy.

And pupils become the losers in this power struggle.

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