Newsmaker – John Volmink : Father of 10 puts education first

2015-01-04 15:00

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Professor John Volmink knows exactly what it feels like to have an anxious matric pupil in the house. The head of exam quality assurance body Umalusi has 10 children – five of his own and five adopted.

Aside from raising his large family, he’s been involved in the daily life of his children’s schools, numerous nongovernmental organisations that focus on matriculants in maths and science?... and?then there’s his day job at Umalusi.

It’s a position he’s held twice, starting in 2006 and continuing until 2010, when Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga appointed him as CEO of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit.

He’s been back at Umalusi since June last year.

When it comes to making the public education system better, Volmink (65) puts his money where his mouth is: none of his 10 children attended private schools.

Today, one of them is a qualified medical doctor, another works for a leading global financial services firm, one is a lawyer and a fourth is wrapping up medical school.

“I believe the only way to improve the system is not to run away from it, but to get involved like I’ve done,” he tells City Press from his home in Athlone, Cape Town.

“You need to fight with the school, the teachers and principal. This system will only get better once everyone does what they are supposed to do.”

Although he’s well known and regarded in education circles, Volmink’s face only becomes familiar to most South Africans once a year, when Umalusi endorses the matric results at a press conference and he joins his colleagues to explain any problems, glitches or areas of concern.

At this week’s briefing in Pretoria, Volmink identified a “new phenomenon” – 19 exam centres in the Eastern Cape and 39 in KwaZulu-Natal are being investigated for alleged “group copying”.

The results from these centres, which catered for about 4?000 people, have been blocked and Umalusi believes education officials involved in cheating ought to be criminally charged.

But while the integrity of the process is important to Volmink and his colleagues, he’s most concerned about the heart of the matter: quality.

Science and maths are two subjects he considers very important – after all, he holds a PhD in mathematics education – though he quickly adds that he doesn’t regard those who can do maths as more or less intelligent than anyone else.

“There are well-structured subjects and others [are] not. Mathematics is well structured, just like language. My Grade 11 daughter and Grade 12 son are at opposite ends when it comes to maths.

“One is at the top of the maths class; the other is at the bottom of the class. I’m going to work on changing that this year.”

He believes all subjects are constructed so that the average pupil can pass, and that includes mathematics.

The difference between the people who make it and those who don’t lies in having emotional strength to work through the pain.

“But in the 21st century, a young person is never going to deal with the pain because they think there are other ways around it. To pass maths takes time, discipline and average intelligence – you don’t have to be a genius.”

Though Umalusi is best known for its work on the matric exams, Volmink says Grade 9 is an area that particularly worries him.

The 2014 Annual National Assessments painted a grim picture of what pupils don’t know when they’re in Grade 9, something Volmink says impacts matric performance.

“Those pupils are all starting on the back foot because by this stage, a pupil should know how to write, read and count.

“Unless something drastic happens in grades?10 and 11, those pupils are all starting with a disability.

“By Grade 9, you should have raised your foundation already in language and mathematics.”

Without that foundation, matric will continue to be a struggle for pupils and their leaving certificates won’t be deemed good enough by universities or by the all-important job market.

In Kenya, he says, each pupil gets a school leaving certificate that doesn’t specify their marks.

“The worth of that certificate is determined by the consumer. If you find that no employer or university likes what they see, you’ll come back to better your marks.

“You have to work hard. I never understand people when they say the standard [of matric] is low because each child should focus on doing the best they can according to the university standards or the market they would like to get into.”

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