Quality education is the answer

2011-02-04 09:39

With the release of the 2010 matric results earlier this month, the basic education department celebrated the ostensible improvement demonstrated by the rise in the pass rate, conveniently shying away from the very real problems surrounding the quality of our education system.

For our children to receive the education they deserve, it is essential that we shift the debate about matric results from an obsession with quantity to an obsession with quality.

There are many aspects of quality on which to focus, and what better way to start than by looking at the exams themselves, which many claim have declined in quality.

I asked a highly respected life sciences teacher (also an experienced marker of matric life sciences exams) to assess the last three years’ life sciences papers.

I was particularly curious about how one of the more complex aspects of life sciences – the genetics of inheritance and species change – was taught and examined.

I learned a number of interesting things from this assessment:

First, the standard of the examination paper improved between 2008 and last year.

The 2010 paper had fewer language errors, there was less repetition and the questions were more logically phrased.

The marking memorandum was closely aligned with the questions.

Second, the 2010 examination paper did not stretch or stimulate the top ­students.

Intellectually, then, the paper tested the average and not the best ­students.

The question is: how well would a student with an average pass in life ­sciences do at university level science?

Third, for scholars whose first language is not English or Afrikaans, the accurate interpretation of the examination paper is a huge problem.

Also, markers whose first language is not English or Afrikaans can misunderstand the memorandum and misinterpret answers.

Fourth, markers are recruited from schools with at least a 60% pass rate.

The majority of the markers are highly professional.

However, some of the more senior markers are trade union appointees and, as chief markers do not have a say over final appointments, underqualified markers do slip through.

Lastly, judging from the exam, many learners have not been taught sections of the curriculum.

The reason for this could be that life sciences teachers at schools in poor areas are simply not up to scratch; or that education authorities cannot assess the quality of teaching because trade unions restrict access.

The problem areas are the quality of teaching, and the consistency in the ­assessment of the matric exams.

It is a sobering fact that the majority of life sciences teachers at schools in poor areas do not even have a qualification in biology or other life sciences.

It is no wonder then that the matric life sciences’ results were so weak: 48.3% of learners failed the life sciences’ examination.

Forty percent is considered to be a pass, and 60% plus failed to achieve 50%. A serious study of genetics, which is essential for careers in biotechnology and the health sciences, requires a minimum pass of 70%, otherwise students will struggle enormously at tertiary learning institutions.

What is to be done? In-service teacher training of life sciences teachers should be introduced. More teachers should teach smaller groups of learners.

Laboratories should be provided for schools that don’t have any, or, where possible, schools should share laboratories.

We desperately need a solution to the language problem. Only English and ­Afrikaans have sufficient science vocabularies (and the books to go with them) and it takes time and investment to ­create a science language for speakers of indigenous languages.

At present we are drifting along with the default option, which is bad science taught and examined in poor English for the majority of our learners.

A pragmatic decision needs to be taken. It may be politically incorrect, but it makes sense: invest in good science teachers teaching and examining in clear English.

We need to know what happens in the classrooms, which means the unions should stop being obstructive.

Regular class assessments of teaching will give an accurate picture of what is working.

We must reinforce the importance of quality.

» Wilmot James MP is the DA shadow minister of basic education

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