A daily spelling test takes place in a Grade 3 class in Cape Town. Numeracy and literacy are constant struggles for most Primary School pupils. Picture: Matthew Jordaan

Most Grade 3 and 6 pupils can’t count and can’t understand what they were supposed to have been taught.

They scored a dismissal 28 percent in numeracy and literacy in a countrywide assessment test earlier this year. In Gauteng, nearly 70 percent of the province’s Grade 3 pupils can’t read or count.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga described the results as “very sad”.

“Provincial performance in these two areas (literacy and numeracy) is between 19 percent and 43 percent, the highest being the Western Cape and the lowest being Mpumalanga.”

The pathetic results confirmed earlier international surveys, in which South African Grade 3s and 6s were ranked very low and their performance was cited by educationists as a symptom of a dysfunctional education system.

Professor Sarah Gravett, the University of Johannesburg’s dean of education, explained that the language and literacy assessments not only show whether pupils read and identify words, but also if they understand what they’re reading.

The evidence is overwhelming that education is failing, the National Professional Teachers’ Association of SA (Naptosa) said.

“We have also been concerned that when samples of learners in Grade 3 and Grade 6 were involved in writing similar literacy and numeracy tests… some years ago, the results did not seem to be used to inform interventions that could possibly have made a difference,” it said.

The test now provided hard evidence on which to base decisions on “what must be done and where it needs to be done”, and it was now up to the department’s officials to take action.

“The same mistakes cannot be repeated over and over again,” Naptosa said.

Motshekga said the low levels of literacy and numeracy in primary schools were “worrying precisely because the critical skills of literacy and numeracy are fundamental to further education and achievement in the worlds of both education and work.”

“Many of our learners lack proper foundations in (these subjects) and so they struggle to progress in the system and into post-schooling education and training,” she said.

Motshekga decided to conduct the tests after it was pointed out that the poor matric results reflected poor performance at lower grades.

The tests, which looked at the pupils’ ability to write, read and count, were written in February this year by over 9 million pupils from public schools in all nine provinces.

The assessments were not used to grade the pupils, but to give the department and the education sector as a whole insight into whether the pupils know what they were meant to have studied in their previous grades.

According to the report, Grade 6 results for language – based on a sample of results from selected schools – show that as few as 15 percent of pupils scored more than 50 percent.

Among Grade 3 pupils, only 17 percent scored more than 50 percent in their numeracy assessment, and 31 percent scored more than 50 percent in the literacy test. Anything below 35 percent meant “not achieved”.

Basic Education Director-General Bobby Soobrayan explained that the results will be used as “a diagnostic tool” for the country’s 25 000 public schools. He

said the assessments focused on basic key foundation skills of literacy and numeracy that were “universally recognised to be key determinants of overall learner performance.”

Kathy Callaghan, secretary of the Governors’ Alliance, which represents more than 300 Gauteng schools, said that while this was bad news, the positive was that it was now out there.

“We can build from there,” she said.

Salim Vally, an education analyst, said it was a catastrophe and that it “shows that South Africa is at the bottom of the pile”.

He emphasised that the critical year for children when it came to cognitive development was in Grade R. He said much needed to be done to improve the working conditions of Grade R teachers and getting access to all children. “Only a fraction of our kids in South Africa go to pre-primary schools, and that’s a shame. This is the time of critical intervention.” – The Star