The heart of education’s woes

2011-10-15 08:30

Research highlights several critical factors behind the number of underperforming schools in the Western Cape, write Amiena Bayat and Wynand Louw.

An underperforming school is defined as one with a Grade 12 pass rate of less than 60%. In the Western Cape, the location of our research, almost 20% of secondary schools are now classified as underperforming.

A striking characteristic revealed by our research was the high level of grade repetition at underperforming schools: 41% of learners said they had repeated one or more grade. This figure is an under-representation of the real extent because it does not include those learners who have dropped out.

This has a range of negative consequences. Learners who fail are often ostracised and labelled by the school and their peers. They also tend to experience problems with self-confidence, and develop negative attitudes towards education and schools.

Resources at schools are under pressure, classrooms are overcrowded and teachers are overworked. The inevitable result is a decline in the overall quality of teaching and learning.

A less tangible consequence for schools is the long-term damage that high rates of repetition cause to the wellbeing of staff and the reputation of the school as a centre of education.

Our research shows learners struggling with the first two years of school and then a decline in repetition between Grades 3 and 7. As learners enter secondary school in Grade?8, however, there is once again a steady increase in the percentage of learners falling behind from Grade 9 with a peak in grades 10 and 11.

More than half of the learners who repeated a grade were in the cohort of Grades 9 to 11. This is clearly the Achilles heel of the phenomenon.

The respondents in our research repeatedly stressed the view that primary schools were failing to lay a solid educational foundation, especially with regard to numeracy and literacy.

The consequence of this, according to them, is that large numbers of Grade 8 learners are entering secondary schools unequipped to deal with the much more varied and demanding curriculum of secondary school.

According to them, the most important issue affecting grade repetition is of a systemic and policy nature. Current policy dictates that a child may only be “held back” once per educational phase.

This imperative forces and causes schools to promote learners to the next grade without them having mastered the necessary subject knowledge and educational competencies demanded by the curriculum.

This was seen as a fundamental factor in the underperformance of learners (and for that matter, schools) because, as one teacher at a rural school put it: “The school system is saturated with this problem.

We are forced to promote mediocrity by the system. We pass the ball on to the next teacher. As the child grows older, the problem grows bigger. When only 28% of the matrics pass, we get the blame and we are told to pull up our socks.

I have told the district office the problem started 10 years ago. They say they know, but that we must ‘make a plan’.” A school management team member responsible for the Grade 8 learners at another rural school related her experience as follows: “Last year we had 159 Grade 8s.

I saw right in the beginning of the year we were going to struggle with these children because they come from a variety of rural farm schools that are very weak. Some could not read or write a sentence.

I begged the district office to keep 79 learners back because they would never make it in Grade 9. It seems they are too afraid to do so.”

The high prevalence of learners leaving the formal school system in Grade 10 and Grade 11 must be seen as a direct consequence of this enforced promotion of educationally unfit learners by, as one school management team member described it, “the indiscriminate and reckless application of a mindless policy”.

Another respondent described the current promotion policy as perverse, a cynical chase after numbers designed to protect the education authorities and the school system while doing an enormous disservice to the children and their parents.

What is imminently clear from our research is that the schooling at many primary schools is not of a level that enables Grade 7 learners to advance successfully to Grade 8 and beyond.

The huge percentage of learners at underperforming schools required to repeat this grade is proof of this. To address this, the existing policies governing the promotion of learners per learning phase must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency.

We are of the opinion that the current policy, whereby learners are allowed to fail only a set number of grades during a 12-year cycle, is fundamentally flawed and has far-reaching implications for both the learner and school.

Many learners, who have already repeated the quota of grades allowed in the intermediate phase while attending primary school, find themselves promoted to Grade?9, although they have not remotely reached the required level for Grade 8.

This leads to high levels of frustration and disillusionment with the educational system among both learners and teachers at underperforming schools.

Learners feel lost and disengaged, and their behaviour becomes disruptive. Teachers, in turn, feel demoralised and experience a sense of failure when large numbers of their learners continuously fail Grade?9, and then eventually Grades 10 and 11.

Our findings suggest that the high dropout rate in Grade 10 at underperforming schools is, to a significant extent, a consequence of this policy.To address this, schools must be allowed to fail learners that do not achieve the required standard in examinations. No learner should be promoted without meeting the standard.

To this end, we recommend that the National Department of Basic Education institute a compulsory national Grade 7 assessment or examination.

This will ensure that learners are assessed in a standardised fashion and that only those learners with the requisite skills are allowed to advance to secondary school.

This gate-keeping will inevitably increase learner numbers at primary level and measures to assist schools in handling this development should be instituted simultaneously so as not to disrupt the educational programme.

In addition, it is imperative for the Department of Basic Education to significantly increase the number of classrooms and teachers in the lower grades of secondary school.

Our research established that class sizes of the lower grades (8 to 10) of underperforming schools are bigger than the norm prescribed (a result in part of the existing policies on the promotion/failures of learners).

The majority of classrooms visited during the field work were so overcrowded that teachers could not move between desks. Learners in underperforming schools are facing a double challenge: they are not adequately prepared for the demands of a secondary school curriculum and class sizes make individual tuition and regular support from teachers impossible.

It is vitally important that education authorities significantly increase the human resource capacity of secondary schools to bring down the teacher-pupil ratio (ideally 1:25) to enable teachers to identify learning deficiencies and afford remedial intervention and/or individual assistance to learners.

While the consequences of forced promotion are central to our findings on underperforming schools, there are various other issues that critically affect the school environment.

The lack of management capacity and leadership of, specifically, school principals and school governing bodies is one such area. The devastating effect of teacher absenteeism is another.

But possibly the most important additional issue to resolve is the official language policy practised at South African schools.English as a medium of instruction p

rofoundly debilitates the learning and teaching process at underperforming secondary schools in the Western Cape that cater for predominantly Xhosa-speaking learners.

All concerned stressed that the current policy was not working and creating serious impediments to teaching and learning. Our research reveals that addressing the matter of “forced promotion” is of paramount importance, but doing so without confronting the other issues on our “critical list” will not result in bringing down the number of underperforming schools in the Western Cape or elsewhere.

It will simply address the symptom and not the underlying tapestry of causes. A multipronged approach is needed that brings together public, private and non-profit sectors in a comprehensive education initiative that aims to improve the overall learning environment in underperforming schools.

The Madrasati Initiative developed in Jordan is an example of such a successful joint partnership that can be considered.

This is an edited excerpt from the study by Bayat and Louw

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