WHEN the interventions that are made to raise the levels of mathematics skills and knowledge among South African pupils fail to bear fruit, it is understandable that many are quick to say that we are in a state of crisis.
However, though it may be understandable, it is not necessarily a fair or correct assessment of the complex situation. In fact, the very premise that the state of South African maths education is in crisis because interventions are “failing to bear fruit” is flawed.
Come every January, whether the matric pass rate rises or falls, the entire nation launches into a few weeks of opining on the state of South African education. We are right to view the state of education as a matter of national concern. Having said that, we do a disservice to the education system by making pronouncements based on only one metric.
Perhaps this view of the state of maths education in SA was most clearly displayed in last year’s widely reported, and quickly discredited, World Economic Forum report. The report’s findings that our maths and science education quality was the worst in the world was discredited on the basis that the rankings were subjective, unscientific, unreliable and lacked any form of technical credibility. However, with the report’s data being gleaned from interviews with business leaders, it does show how deep misconceptions about our education system are among an economically significant section of our country — the very same business leaders.
The concern expressed at the drop in the matric maths pass rate is fair, but that is in no way the full story. People who are concerned about the future development of SA, and who want to add to this debate in a meaningful way, need to have the full view of what is happening.
International studies have repeatedly shown that problems with maths at the final stages of a school career have their roots in primary education. This means that it is not that maths suddenly becomes exponentially more difficult come matric, but rather that gaps in maths skills and knowledge from lower grades snowball, leading to devastating results in the final years.
Current interventions by the Basic Education Department do seem to be working. The Annual National Assessment (ANA) results provide a picture of levels of performance in literacy and numeracy at the key transitional stages of grades 3, 6 and 9. There are indeed criticisms of the assessments, but they do provide us with a regular snapshot of whether initiatives that have been put in place are showing promise. Not only can you see the lay of the land, but weak spots can also be identified through the assessment results. Teachers use this feedback to build on their strengths and to develop intervention strategies to address their areas of weakness.
As Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga pointed out when the 2014 Annual National Assessment results were published late last year, 12 out of 81 districts achieved average percentage scores of 50% and above in grade 6 maths. Clearly the improvement plans put in place as a consequence of the 2013 assessments have paid off.
The 2014 assessment results showed some heartening results. Grade 1 maths came in at 68.4% — up from 59.6% in 2013 — and grade 2 pupils averaged 61.8%, an increase from 58.9% the previous year.
These kinds of facts are often overlooked in the outrage over matric results. As someone intensely passionate about education in SA, this concerns me for two main reasons:
• Firstly, it does a disservice to the hard work our teachers and officials are doing within the education system. Not only is this unfair, it can often be demoralising, which the education system cannot afford.
• However, the second reason these misconceptions concern me is how they are shaping the opinions of business leaders. While figures for 2014 are not yet available, according to independent research group Trialogue, companies spent R7.8bn on corporate social investment (CSI) projects in 2013 with the lion’s share going into education initiatives. Additionally, it found that between 2008 and 2013 there was an increase in the country’s overall corporate social investment spend on education, from 31% to 43%. If the perception among business leaders remains that education is a “lost cause”, it is likely that the needed spend in corporate social investment projects in education will drop. Why spend more money on something that is showing little success?
It is my contention that corporate social investment initiatives in education are often based on noble intentions without a solid understanding of what is needed to make a significant change. There are too many glamour corporate social investment projects, especially in the apparent “quick fix” of digital learning because of all the promise it holds. At best, these do nothing more than enhance a company’s image and, at worst, do nothing for the school system because of their short-term focus.
This is the reason that, in association with the Department of Basic Education, we as Via Afrika have launched a venture that will see us applying our expertise in this field to help companies that want to assist in developing the education sector by replicating our own corporate social investment project — the Via Afrika Digital Centre initiative.
Launched last year, the Via Afrika Digital Education Centre initiative provided schools in rural Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Free State with refurbished container libraries fitted with 15 first-class Android tablets packed with educational apps and Wi-Fi. A key component, to ensure that the initiative worked, was regular and ongoing training for the teachers on tablet devices and how to successfully implement e-learning at their schools.
The results, easily measured through the pupils’ increasing grade averages across all subjects, were so heartening that deciding to replicate the model elsewhere was a clear choice.
There has been much excitement about digital technologies in education and how they are revolutionising the classroom. I firmly believe digital learning holds the promise to assist in alleviating problems in South African education. The corporate world has clearly shown a commitment to working hand-in-hand to develop education. It is necessary to ensure that corporate interventions bear the intended and best fruits for our pupils.
• Watson is CEO of educational publishing house Via Afrika.
This article was originally published in the February 19th edition of Business Day.