Khayelitsha: an unfolding story of scholastic progress

2013-08-28 10:00

In the early 1950s, South Africa’s minister of native affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd, said: “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

This deep-seated prejudice drove the apartheid policy that denied black children the same standard of education as white pupils. Today, the legacy of Bantu education continues to haunt policy makers tasked with providing a decent education to children whose parents were denied it in the past.

Despite spending a fifth of its national budget on education (and disproportionately more on “previously disadvantaged” schools), the hard reality is that South Africa is not producing enough matriculants who can read, write and calculate at the levels required to compete in the global economy.

This is clear from South Africa’s underperformance in international benchmark tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

High rates of teacher and pupil absenteeism, strike action, administrative bungling, unqualified teachers, a crumbling infrastructure and a shortage of textbooks are often cited to illustrate an education system in irreversible decline.

But beyond the doom and gloom, there are places where a different story is emerging.

Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town, is one of the largest and fastest-growing townships in South Africa. Established in the early 1980s, it is now home to about half a million people.

Many there migrated from other provinces in search of jobs and a better life. Despite free basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation, unemployment, poverty, overcrowding and violent crimes persist.

But when it comes to education, the narrative is slowly changing. The Centre for Science and Technology (Cosat) – a specialist maths and science secondary school in Khayelitsha– became the first township school to be placed in the top 10 schools in Western Cape for the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations in 2011.

A rigorous selection process based on each child’s potential to do well at maths, science and information technology is partly responsible for Cosat’s success. Money plays a role too.

Though parents pay a small fee, the state and, crucially, private sector donors provide most of the additional funding, which ensures up-to-date equipment, learning materials and – most importantly – qualified teachers who care about children succeeding.

The Cosat story has been well documented in South Africa and abroad. What far fewer people have noticed is the steady but undeniable improvement in the other 20 (nonspecialist) secondary schools in Khayelitsha over the last few years.

In 2009, the average pass rate for the NSC exams in Khayelitsha schools was 53.6%. By 2012, it had risen to 70.2%, not far off the national pass rate of 73.9%.

Even more encouraging is the concomitant decline in “underperforming” (an NSC pass rate of 60% or less) Khayelitsha schools from 15 in 2009 to just four last year.

Behind these numbers are individual schools that have shown phenomenal improvement in a very short period. Take Matthew Goniwe Memorial High School, for example. In 2009, this school struggled with a matric pass rate of just 45.5%. Last year, 84.2% of the pupils who wrote the NSC passed – a full 10% above the national pass rate.

Iqhayiya Secondary and Chris Hani Secondary showed similar improvements. Iqhayiya’s pass rate was 75.6% last year, up from 34.6% in 2009. Chris Hani went from 44.2% in 2009 to 83.3% last year.

Some education experts argue that the pass rate is a crude measure of school performance and is open to manipulation by schools that hold back weaker pupils from writing the NSC exams.

Other performance measures need to be taken into account, such as the total number of students who wrote and passed the NSC exams, and how many did well enough to gain admission to university.

Last year, 54 fewer Khayelitsha pupils wrote the NSC examinations than in 2009. But over the same period, 500 more Khayelitsha pupils passed the NSC examinations: 2 038 in 2012 compared with 1 538 in 2009.

Of those who passed, 584 qualified for university entrance, compared with just 305 in 2009.

What is behind the improvement in Khayelitsha schooling in the past three years? “It’s nothing sexy or dramatic,” says Clive Roos, a special adviser to the Western Cape’s education MEC.

“The department simply got its house in order,” he says, adding that in 2009, the incoming MEC inherited an “ad hoc amalgam of peculiar things”.

According to Roos, simply having a plan changed everything completely.

» Davis is the DA’s director of communications, writing in his personal capacity. This article is due to be published in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa

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