For school to be cool

2013-11-05 00:00

SO the president wants mathematics and science to be made “more exciting and popular” to entice more pupils to take the subjects. It’s an interesting call just as the country’s 700 000 matric pupils sit down to their final examinations.

Speaking to finalists of the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists last Friday, President Jacob Zuma outlined the reasons for his call. They included “our economy will have all the scientists, technologists, engineers, artisans and other skills that we need for economic development”.

“It also means we will have all the expertise we need to prevent and cure diseases, or to fight poverty through better agricultural methods,” he said.

One cannot fault Zuma for the call — our need to import doctors from Cuba is a potent indication of the small numbers of matrics being produced with passes in the crucial subjects. But once you’ve attracted pupils to take those subjects, what then? Will we be doing those pupils a favour, or a grave disservice?

Mr President, will those excited pupils have the facilities to experience the practical aspects of what they are taught?

In the absence of laboratories, will those excited pupils receive their text books — a basic tool in any pupil’s bag — on time, if at all?

Will those excited pupils have teachers who are qualified to teach those subjects? Can we expect those teachers to be in class timeously, again if at all?

Will those excited pupils be able to concentrate in class on empty stomachs?

Assuming the above are all in order, the quality of those who pass must then also be questioned — with just 30% required to record “passed” on the report, and low university entrance requirements, what incentive is there for pupils to do more than the minimum? What incentive is there for the teacher to do more than the bare minimum?

And even with the low pass requirements, of those matric pupils who wrote mathematics last year, just 54% passed, although this was an improvement from the 46,3% who passed in 2011; 61,3% of the science pupils passed, up from 53,4% the year before.

The picture is not made any more rosy by City Press’s report late last month that some Grade 6 pupils are outperforming teachers from disadvantaged schools — from where the pupils who are surely the focus of Zuma’s call come — in mathematics tests.

University of Stellenbosch researcher Nicholas Spaull, whose findings formed the basis of the article, said: “There is a case to be made that teachers who lack an elementary understanding of the subjects they teach can actually do harm to their pupils. A lack of basic content knowledge among teachers is a problem that should be addressed urgently.

“The existing body of evidence suggests that a large proportion of South African teachers have below-basic content knowledge in the subjects that they teach — largely as a result of inadequate apartheid-era teacher training and the ineffectiveness of in-service teacher training initiatives,” he said.

“In light of this, and following the premise that teachers cannot teach what they do not know, it is a logical imperative that a system of identifying which teachers need what help is urgently required.”

But how do we determine if our teachers have the required “basic content knowledge”? How do we determine which teachers need help? By testing them, would be the logical answer. But the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) will not allow the reintroduction of the teacher competency tests that would answer these questions. Sadtu’s argument is that teachers are being made to teach subjects they are not qualified for, and testing them would therefore be unfair. Rather be unfair to the pupils who are being given a below-par education and perpetuate apartheid-era Bantu education, albeit without the same name.

So what are the solutions?

First, Education Minister Angie Motshekga should face down Sadtu and implement teacher competency tests. Not as a punitive measure to get rid of teachers, but rather to find out who is qualified to teach what, so they can be deployed according to their strengths.

Settle on a curriculum and stick to it.

Reopen all teacher training colleges — many of which were shut down in the rationalisation of universities — to train teachers as specialists. It may not be possible to build a laboratory per township school. But what about a central facility per cluster, servicing a number of schools using it on a roster basis?

Implement a national programme to prioritise the building or repair of township schools, and the provision of all learning material and feeding schemes to the schools. Abolish the silly system of not failing a pupil more than once in a schooling phase. If a pupil performs badly, it is pointless promoting him or her to the next grade to satisfy pass quotas. In the same vein, increase the pass percentage to get a better quality of university entrant, obviating the need for “bridging programmes” — the euphemism for courses universities offer to teach what should have been taught at school. Instil discipline among pupils and teachers. Make clear that expulsion or dismissal is the consequence for ill-discipline. Once these are in place, we can perhaps look at popularising maths and science, and achieving the president’s aim of a bright economic future for the country.

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