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Johannesburg - The 13-year-old smiles proudly in his black graduation gown. He holds a certificate announcing to the world that he has done well in his primary school in Bramfischerville, Soweto, and will be moving to high school.
One week later, his class teacher hands his report to the father. In it are listed nine subjects – most of which the boy failed dismally.
His average is 29 percent and the box which says he is ready to progress to the next grade has been ticked. In the comments line are the words “work hard”.
Meanwhile, the boy’s high school has not asked for his primary school report cards.
On Wednesday, he starts Grade 8.
According to education experts, this story is not unique, nor is it unique in township schools.
Khume Ramulifho, DA MPL for education in Gauteng, said they encountered a problem last year where a school appeared to be pushing through pupils with a 25 percent average.
He said unofficially he was told the pass mark was 28 percent, but it is not something that is widely spoken about.
“Teachers are reluctant to raise such problems,” Ramulifho said.
The reason for the low passes was varied, but a large problem was overcrowding, where teachers weren’t always able to identify that there was a problem.
Gauteng Department of Education spokesman Charles Phahlane said the department would investigate the child’s report.
It also seems to be a common occurrence that children are not able to read and write many years into their schooling.
Marion Brown and her husband Alistair, who have worked in education for 40 years, heard about a school in Soweto where the children were struggling to read and write in English.
Through their work at Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) centre Put on the Light of Learning, run through the Khanyisa Outreach project, they arranged for children in grades 4, 5, 6 and 7 to come out on Saturdays and be taught English language skills.
Marion Brown said the children’s reading skills were very poor, particularly in the higher grades, and after a year of the Saturday classes, there was a huge improvement.
Unfortunately, the teachers refused to attend the lessons unless they were paid extra, and the project fell away.
The two top children in the sessions were given bursaries to attend better schools in Joburg and had gone on to do well in high school.
Brown said the biggest problem behind children doing so badly in their ordinary schooling was poor teaching.
“The fact that the teachers refused to come through to lessons unless they were paid says it all.”
Kathy Callaghan, from parents’ organisation Governors Alliance, said many children had problems.
They might need to go to a remedial school, be dyslexic or have problems with their eyesight, but these were not always picked up.
The 13-year-old boy’s marks were in line with recent average scores for the annual national assessment tests. “These tell us clearly that learners cannot read, write or do maths,” Callaghan said.
In maths tests, Grade 7 pupils were found to average 23.7 percent in quintile one schools, 23.8 percent in quintile two, 24.5 percent in quintile three, 27.4 percent in quintile four and 39.6 percent in quintile five.
Quintiles refer to the socio-economic status of the school, with the poorest schools in quintile one and the best-off in quintile five.
“When I mention these scores to some of my schools, their immediate response is that it isn’t them, but the quintile four and five results show this problem is across the board. These failure rates are in ordinary suburban schools,” Callaghan said.
The answer was not to simply fail the child, because most of them did not improve the next year.
Asked what happened to those children, Callaghan said many of them simply drop out of the system.