Although much of the focus in preceding weeks has been on the recent announcement of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) results, in which the class of 2018 obtained a 78.2% national pass rate, up from 75.1% in 2017, many stories of extraordinary progress being made in South Africa’s basic education system remain untold.
One such story is our remarkable journey towards a data-driven education system. South Africa is one of few countries in the world that can claim to have near real-time attendance, assessment and education progress data for more than 22 000 schools at their fingertips for every week of the school year.
In his speech at the department of basic education’s Data Summit in 2017, Deputy Education Minister Enver Surty stated that “our top-performing districts are districts that are data-driven”. The NSC results showed that Gauteng claimed eight of the top 10 performing districts in the country, and Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo also made significant improvements in their overall NSC performance. These provinces have also made great strides towards embedding data-driven tools and practices in their education departments.
The core initiative underpinning this data-driven education journey is the data-driven districts (DDD) programme. The programme aims to improve pupils’ performance with increased quality, availability and usage of education data. It does this by collecting school-level data from the South African School Administration and Management System (SA-SAMS), which the department has provided free of charge, and visualises this data on the DDD dashboard, a web-based reporting and analysis tool.
With these tools, the department is solving one of the toughest education challenges: gathering timely, standardised and quality education data.
With access to the DDD dashboard, education officials have information and detailed performance data for more than 11-million pupils in more than 22 00 schools on a term-by-term basis. Research is being conducted by the department in partnership with the data-driven districts team to assess the correlation between improved data collection, quality and usage and ultimate learner performance.
The real effect of a data-driven education system is evident when education officials make use of the data to support pupils and educators. It provides insights that inform the intervention decisions for their districts, schools and pupils.
“The dashboard gives you the edge for you to intervene strategically, to intervene purposefully, to intervene specifically,” says Themba Kojana, superintendent general of the Eastern Cape department of education, which was the most improved province in the 2018 NSC results, improving by more than five percentage points in a single year.
Educators at all levels are integrating data to drive decisions and shape their ways of working. Thembi Nkosi, principal of a primary school in Mpumalanga, gives a school leader’s perspective: “I can pinpoint absenteeism, learners without ID, compare the performance of our school within the circuit and have my eye on the pass rates … I am able to see who my strongest and weakest learners are so that I can help accordingly.”
The increased quality and availability of data has also enhanced the capacity of district officials to assess the standards of teaching in schools and then to decide on the appropriate support to be provided by subject advisers. Data and technology use is not just the domain of young educators; the most experienced professionals are setting the example of data use to support system improvements.
Mohatsi Mothebe, district director in the Free State’s Xhariep district, said that “the DDD dashboard is the most effective management tool that I have used in my 37 years in education”.
To keep up with ongoing advancements in data practices and technology, new features and functionality are regularly incorporated into the department’s toolsets. A recent addition to the DDD dashboard is the learner intervention planning report, which uses predictive analytics to identify pupils who might fail or even drop out of school, and then to direct additional support in a highly targeted way.
In addition to this, the department, in partnership with the National Education Collaboration Trust and a number of philanthropic partners, is investing more than R80-million in an upgrade of the SA-SAMS to ensure its systems and technology are kept current and able to adapt to the advancing data-driven culture in the department.
With knowledge of what works best, underpinned by reliable data, education officials can implement interventions with the greatest potential to improve pupil outcomes. Standardised data collection, verification and evaluation processes are being deployed in provincial education departments to ensure that a data-driven culture is embedded from school level right up to the national head office. In an effort to promote a data-driven culture across the education system, the department encourages education officials at all levels to use data to achieve greater success in 2019 and beyond.
South Africa’s education system is by no means perfect, but it is also most certainly a system on the rise. Much work is still to be done to ensure young people are prepared for the fourth industrial revolution that is already upon us, and future revolutions to come.
With this data-driven education success story, and many other similar untold stories of inexorable progress, we are setting in place the foundations that will ensure our children’s educational futures are bright.
Elijah Mhlanga is the spokesperson for the department of basic education