Teachers should write matric exams to boost their subject knowledge


It is recognised internationally that the key to sustained economic recovery and growth lies in high-quality school education, yet the majority of schools in South Africa are officially dysfunctional.

In When less intervention in education practices produces much more (January 24 2014) Geoff Schreiner raised criteria for proposed solutions to the abysmally poor performance of public schools.

Schreiner asked: “What can feasibly be done that will have the biggest possible impact in the shortest possible time and on the most cost-effective basis?”

Other criteria emerging from his article are that any strategy should:

• Be driven by the department of basic education;

• Have a core focus on subject knowledge, knowledge of the curriculum and knowledge of how best to transfer facts, concepts and ideas;

• Be driven by sound data;

• Assist educators to identify gaps in their subject knowledge;

• Have a support system to rectify identified shortcomings;

• Enable subject advisers to be more productively focused on areas of need;

• Focus on doing a few things well, rather than fail in too ambitious broad-spectrum strategies; and

• Lead to vacancies being filled with competent staff. (Note that the world’s top-performing school systems recruit their teachers from only the top school graduates from each year.)

The Bill of Rights states that “everyone has a right to basic education” (read grades R to 12) and the right to “further education” (read tertiary education). Access to the latter requires a suitably high standard of school education, which, in turn, cannot be attained without highly qualified and competent school educators. Given that one cannot teach what one does not know, it follows that inflicting poorly equipped educators on pupils is a gross and immoral denial of the schoolchildren’s constitutional right. This must be addressed urgently.

The Employment of Educators Act defines poor performance by an educator as “not performing in accordance with the job that the educator has been employed to do”. To address this issue “the employer [the department of basic education] must develop and initiate a formal programme of counselling and training” with “reasonable timeframes” within which the educator must meet the required standard.

The following educator-upliftment proposal focuses on rapidly improving the subject knowledge of grade 7 to 12 educators by “piggy backing” on the existing, largely efficient and impartial nation-wide grade 12 final matric exam infrastructure.

As the employer, the department of basic education must inform all grade 7 to 12 educators and subject advisers, one year in advance, that:

  • They will be obliged to write the relevant matric exams in their primary/main teaching subject every year for three years or until they achieve an 80% pass rate in that subject. Grade 7 to 9 teachers will write the exam of the subject most closely related to their main subject. For example, general science teachers can choose to write either the life sciences or the physical science examination and social studies teachers can choose to write either the history or the geography exam. The educators will write the subject exam along with the grade 12s at the nearest examination centre;
  • Feedback to the educator will include a copy of the marked examination script(s). The latter will also be supplied to the relevant school subject heads, principals and subject advisers.
  • After feedback has been received from the marking centres, in-service assistance in addressing knowledge gaps will be provided by the relevant school subject head and subject adviser;
  • Educators and subject advisers who achieve the required 80% benchmark will be at liberty to voluntarily continue writing the exam in the subsequent years to further improve their professional credibility.
  • After achieving the benchmark of 80%, educators and subject advisers will be obliged to write the relevant matric exam every three years. This will bring school education into line with many other professions in which regular reaccreditation assessments are obligatory.

The department must also advise all tertiary teacher-training institutions that, after year three of the initiative, all prospective candidates applying for a teaching post in the grade 7 to 12 spectrum will be obliged to provide certified proof of an 80% or higher matric-level competency in their main teaching subject. Where it becomes necessary to fill vacancies with candidates who have not yet achieved the 80% benchmark, such appointments will be at a temporary level until the post can be filled with a fully compliant candidate.

This approach to educator upliftment addresses all the highlighted criteria. The senior phase (grades 7 to 9) educators are included because the curriculums from grade 7 onwards introduce and expand on concepts and skills that the pupils will be required to have mastered by the end of their grade 12 year. Given that grade 12 pupils write exams in seven (often more) subjects in one year, the expectation of educators to obtain a minimum of 80% in a single subject (that they teach every day) over a period of three years is more than reasonable.

It is also important to note that, in the world’s top-achieving education systems, an 80% pass mark in any single subject would be insufficient for admission to tertiary teacher-training institutions.

Notwithstanding this comparatively low benchmark, the introduction of this proposal will have a huge and almost immediate positive effect on South Africa’s educational woes and give a much-needed boost to our national morale. It will provide a solid data-based cornerstone on which further improvement can be based.

The proposal is a low-key adaptation of the McKinsey report of September 2007, How the World’s Best-performing Systems Come Out on Top.

It is as relevant today as it was then. It can be sourced here and is a “must read” for all who care about the quality of public school education in South Africa.

Tom Jourdan is a retired highschool deputy principal and co-author of life sciences textbooks, who is putting together a guidebook for educators. Contact him at [email protected]

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