SA learners fail to make the grade

2011-04-02 15:58

South Africa’s grade 6 learners from poor backgrounds are the second-worst readers from a group of 15 countries in Southern and Eastern Africa.

Only Zambia’s poor learners did worse in the the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality’s (Sacmeq) third research project on reading and mathematics skills.

Nic Spaull, economics researcher at the University of Stellenbosch, says in a preliminary ­analysis of the Sacmeq III data that one would expect South Africa’s learners to perform the best in the ­region.

South Africa has more qualified teachers, a better teacher:pupil ratio and better access to resources.

Yet the average reading skills of South Africa’s grade 6 learners only score 10th and their maths skills score only eighth out of the 15 ­participating countries.

That is more or less as bad as in the Sacmeq II tests that were written between 2000 and 2002, when South Africa achieved the ninth spot out of 14 countries in reading as well as maths.

A total of 9?083 South African grade 6 learners in 392 schools wrote the Sacmeq III tests and completed questionnaires in 2007.

The maths of the poorest 25% only scored 12th position, while the richest 25% read the fourth best and did the sixth best sums.

Spaull says South Africa’s teaching policymakers should ask how it is possible that an average ­income country’s learners do worse than those of its low-income neighbours.

South Africa’s GDP is 10 times higher than that of Tanzania but Tanzania’s learners performed better in all aspects.

Spaull says the Sacmeq III ­results show that South Africa ­generally still has two types of schools: rich schools that function optimally and poor, often dysfunctional schools.

The results do show that when poor children are placed in a rich school they can overcome their negative domestic circumstances and perform well educationally.

Spaull says this is probably ­because richer schools have better school management, more ­involvement from parents and governing bodies, good discipline, high quality and motivated teachers and exist in a generally more functional environment.

Furthermore, Sacmeq III shows that pre-school education has a positive impact on a child’s later reading skills but that 40% of learners in the poorest quintile ­receive no pre-school education.

The impact of learners’ access to textbooks was also measured. Those who have their own or share them with one other learner read far better than those who have to share with more than one learner.

Spaull says one has to take into consideration that the tests and questionnaires were only provided in English and Afrikaans.

Educators were also given the opportunity to write tests but between 10% and 20% did not want to. Their tests were similar to the learners’ but included more challenging questions.

Although educators did not all do as well as one would have hoped, Spaull says the results show that educators’ knowledge does not have the biggest influence on learners’ performance. He says motivation and the ability to transfer knowledge are probably what make a good teacher.

At the end of last year Sacmeq published a working document on its website on how the participating countries had fared in reading and maths.

The results of questions around HIV-Aids are still to be released.

Spaull received special permission to receive the Sacmeq III data on an earlier date for his research.

Dr Granville Whittle, basic education spokesperson, said on Friday that the department would not immediately react to the study.

It is still writing the official country report, which Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga will release in the middle of the year.

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