Motshekga making right waves

The Star

This being the time of year for catching up with friends, I’ve noticed a common theme running through each social encounter.

As soon as the conversation turns to “so what do you do for a living?”, I answer (perhaps foolishly) that I work for the Department of Basic Education, and therefore for the minister, Angie Motshekga. As if by magic, the immediate area around me becomes transformed into the densest agglomeration of education experts in the world.

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Gathering dust: Undelivered textbooks were at the centre of the Limpopo education scandal.	Pictures: Itumeleng English and Giyani BaloiDavid SilmanREALIST: For Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to fix problems, they must first be identified before they can be remediated, says David Silman, director of the Dinaledi unit at the Basic Education Department. The writer says this takes political guts, knowing in advance that the results would highlight the glaring systemic inadequacies.	Pictures: Itumeleng English and Giyani Baloi

Thick and fast I am barraged with “So where are the books?”; “What is she (Motshekga) doing aside from buggering up education?”; “Why can’t she get schooling right?”; “Why doesn’t she fire the useless teachers?”; “How can she stay in the job when she can’t even deliver books?”; “the grade 9 results for maths are disastrous”; “Standards are so low, you only need 30 percent to pass matric nowadays”; “Our matric used to be recognised overseas, but now it’s worthless”; “She should be fired, the president should get rid of her”. The items become a bit repetitive and, of course, I have heard these comments before.

This being the case, I nevertheless listen very carefully, recognising with respect the genuine concern being expressed about schooling. I reply as best I can, giving answers where I can.

Much of what I say is a matter of public record, and may be found in government-issued reports and briefings; nevertheless, people don’t know this “stuff”.

What are the ANAs? The Annual National Assessments are standardised tests, administered to grades 3, 6 and 9 countrywide. In a nutshell, the purpose of these tests is to see whether the children are able to cope with grade-appropriate work, and at what levels they perform. They are essentially diagnostic tools that assess the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process.

This year’s assessments showed some improvement in grades 3 and 6. The Grade 9 results for maths were described by a very credible critic of basic education as being “disastrous”. I cannot in good conscience disagree with this opinion. It is what it is, and calling a thing by its name is an unequivocal and blunt expression of an unpalatable truth.

In order to fix problems, they must be identified before they can be remediated.

I am awed by the political guts required to do this, knowing in advance that the results would highlight the glaring systemic inadequacies. Nevertheless, Minister Motshekga has done this, and continues to take the inevitable ensuing beating.

Part of the concern about the grade 9 maths results is predicated upon an assumption that grade 9 results are predictive of grade 12 performance.

The fact is that only 2 percent of Grade 9s got over 50 percent for maths ANAs. No argument, they are disastrous. Now this is a good moment to identify the critic I referred to earlier. It is none other than Angie Motshekga, minister of Basic Education. How many politicians have this courage and integrity? Dishonest? In an ivory tower? Useless? I think not!

Please read the following paragraph carefully. If nothing was being done in the years between grades 9 and 12, we should be getting 2 percent, or less, of the matric candidates achieving a mark of 50 percent or higher. This is not the case.

Proportionately, over five times more Grade 12 candidates achieved a mark of 50 percent in relation to the grade 9 ANA result. In fact, based on the 2011 NSC maths results, 11 percent of the pupils who wrote achieved a mark in excess of 60 percent.

Good work must have been done in the three years since this Grade 12 cohort were in Grade 9. Teachers must have been doing their jobs.

This data suggests strongly that the ANA is not a good predictor for Grade 12 outcomes, and that it is disingenuous, unfair and dishonest to use them to “prove” how bad the education system is.

However, I readily agree that the results are not close to satisfactory. The point is that they are improving.

The conclusion must be that the system, headed as it is by the “useless Angie Motshekga”, is either on the receiving end of a divine intervention, or it is providing improving quality of learning opportunities to pupils in grades 10, 11 and 12.

The OBE curriculum was not working. The minister responsible for basic education did what needed to be done, recognised and accepted the reality and initiated the genesis and development of CAPS.

In short, a non-specific, flatulent and jargon-ridden schooling model was replaced with clearly defined subject content with unambiguous mark weightings and modalities of assessment.

Within the space of only three years, two-thirds of the schooling system (by grade) is supported by the provision of standardised, quality assured core textbooks. By the end of 2014, CAPS will have covered Grade R to Grade 12. Notwithstanding a repeat of last year’s book delivery fiasco, state schools will be provided with textbooks, workbooks and study guides in sufficient quantities to ensure that every pupil has a textbook and/or workbook for each subject.

In addition to the universal provision of textbooks, millions of workbooks of indisputable quality have been developed and distributed. This “useless” minister has set the course for universal textbook coverage, and the system is delivering on this objective.

The next issue requires you to visualise a pot-bellied, puffy-faced child with blotchy, discoloured, flaky-skinned cheeks. A protein-deficient diet causes kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition that was endemic and widespread in South Africa. A child’s brain requires protein to grow and develop properly, and a diet of cheap, tummy-filling pap, brimful of carbohydrates but devoid of protein, is a sure-fire way of inducing the disease.

This widespread malnutrition phenomenon was due in no small measure to government policy from the “good old days”. Intrinsic “dumbing down” of millions of children through biologically induced incapacity to undertake hi-tech, complex tasks was the intention of government policy. How easy it was to make the African population “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Keeping the natives docile through a combination of enforced poverty (remember job reservation?) and a sick, cynical form of biological warfare.

The level of difficulty of matric exam questions is moot in the face of this iniquity. To suggest otherwise is immoral, notwithstanding that our children deserve better, higher-quality schooling.

The issue here is not only that hungry children cannot concentrate on a lesson while their tummies rumble, but also that their brains cannot grow and develop to their potential. To counter this evil, this minister has seen to it that on every school day, 8 million children receive a nourishing meal. What better uses can be made of the taxpayers’ money than to ensure the school-receptive potential of children at this most fundamental level of intellectual and physical development.

Eight-million children in school today receive a wholesome meal, cooked and prepared on site, every school day. Some R8 billion of the Basic Education budget was spent last year on the National School Nutrition Programme. At only R1 000 a child per year, this is an astonishingly good value for money invested in the country’s future.

What we have now are millions of appropriately nourished children and a curriculum with clearly specified content. We have exit exams at grade 12 that are set and administered nationally. Not too many years ago, the matric exams were plagued by widespread incidents of cheating, leaked papers and generally weak administration.

In the “good old days” I mentioned earlier, each of the four provinces set and marked these exams individually. Even if the standard – whatever that really means is another conversation – was higher than currently, I’m yet to meet a black person with a matric certificate from the TED (the old Transvaal Education Department) or any of the remaining three provinces we had at that time.

The fact is that there was extremely limited access to good-quality schooling for millions upon millions of South African children. That is how it was.

There can be no question that there are increasing numbers of South Africans who have passed through our less-than-perfect schooling system who have received tertiary education. This is indisputable.

The teachers have done their work, as have the pupils. Let’s give credit where it is due, and remember that there is a lot more that needs to be done.

We are improving on many fronts, and I believe this minister is responsible.

Could she do better? Can’t we all?

l David Silman is director of the Dinaledi unit at the Department of Basic Education

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