For close to a decade, the Eastern Cape has been the worst province for basic education and its matric pass rate has hovered between 50% and 60%.
But, when the matric results were announced last week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga made special mention of the province, which had shown the greatest improvement. It achieved a 70.6% pass rate, up from 65.8% in 2017.
“We must applaud the Eastern Cape for joining the 70% performance club, which includes the Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga … despite the challenges they are faced with, especially the contestations related to the rationalisation of small and unviable schools, under the leadership of MEC Mandla Makupula — may his dear soul rest in peace,” she said.
Makupula had served as MEC for education since 2010 but died last year.
Small schools, whose numbers were dwindling because of the movement of pupils to urban areas, were shut or merged and the Eastern Cape education system has struggled with the lack of school infrastructure, which led to the high court in Bhisho last year ruling in favour of advocacy group Equal Education, which took the department to court to force it to implement the basic norms and standards for school infrastructure.
The province has also been battling with a shortage of teachers, which put it at loggerheads with teacher unions for many years.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian this week, the provincial department’s superintendent general, Themba Kojana, said, when he arrived in the province in 2016, the most important advice he received from officials was not to introduce any new plans.
“They said to me, ‘don’t come with a new plan; the province has been creating many plans; do only a few things’. They said to me, ‘you must focus on communication because people don’t know what we are doing; you must communicate effectively with schools’,” Kojana said.
Officials also implored him to improve performance management and to hold people accountable. He said he had heeded the advice and had mostly stuck to it.
The department developed a three-year education transformation plan, which in part dealt with the backlogs. This included ensuring that teachers were paid on time and it reduced its districts from 23 to 12, making sure that schools were serviced efficiently and vacant posts were filled quickly.
“In the Eastern Cape, there used to be lots of strikes because we were not managing teacher provisioning properly. We worked very closely with the Education Labour Relations Council, which came down to work with us, and we found each other with unions and we were able to declare [advertise] the posts on time or before time,” Kojane said.
The province has also been training circuit managers, whose job is to support and monitor schools, and it went on a huge drive to employ subject advisers and train them in exactly what is required of them.
Kojane said it had also improved the provision of teaching and learning materials, and was providing furniture where it was needed most.
“If you get the basics right, things will work. It is these basic things that we have been able to put in place to ensure that we normalise the environment.”
He added that principals were now able to speak directly to him about their problems, and they had also provided solutions because of the open-door policy.
For the first time in many years, no schools in the province had a 0% pass rate, although the pass rate in several was below 20%.
Even the number of under-performing schools had dropped significantly — to 18 — compared with the big numbers in previous years, he said.
“I will engage with the principals of those schools to find out what we can do differently to support them. I go directly to schools and talk to teachers to find out what we can do to change things and that’s what I will be doing with these schools.”
He added he was also learning from provinces such as Gauteng, the Free State and the Western Cape, and was constantly talking to their heads of departments to find out what they were doing to achieve good results. Those provinces have repeatedly been in the top three for matric results.
Kojane said he was also collaborating with Mpumalanga and Limpopo on their maths and science strategies.