SAD INDICTMENT: A pupil crosses a stream on the way back from school in Tshepisong. The writer says poverty affects the cognitive development of pupils. Picture: Neil Baynes

A Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has confirmed that South Africa still lags behind its international counterparts in pupil performance and achievement in maths and science at Grade 9 level. Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan were the top-performing nations at the fourth grade. Korea, Singapore and Taiwan outperformed all countries at the eighth grade. Among the top 10 performers at the fourth grade were Northern Ireland, Belgium (Flemish), Finland, England and the Russian Federation.

At the eighth grade, the Russian Federation, Israel, Finland, the US and England were among the top 10 high-achieving countries. At the Grade 8 level, Tunisia, Morocco and Ghana had the lowest scores in maths.

South Africa, Botswana and Honduras were the only three countries that did the assessment at the Grade 9 level.

For maths, Botswana achieved an average scale of 397 (2.5), South Africa 352 (2.5) and Honduras 338 (3.7). For science, Botswana achieved a score of 404 (3.6), Honduras 369 (4.0) and South Africa 332 (3.7). Ghana and South Africa show improved scores in maths since 2002.

The sad reality about the TIMSS scores is that “the average scale score of the top seven countries exceeds South African performance at the 95th percentile”. And that means “the most proficient learners in South Africa approached the average performance in Singapore, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Republic of Korea, Japan, Finland, Slovenia and Russian Federation”.

The TIMSS and the Annual National Assessment results demonstrate that the South African education system is in a state of disaster.

Educationist Bill Ayers reminds us that “we teach to make a difference, to improve things, to participate in a profoundly human and social experience, to change the world, sometimes one precious life after another”. The state of education as reflected by the results shows a gloomy picture and a need to improve the education system.

A lasting solution must be found to bring some credibility to the system. This year has been an eventful one for education with serious consequences. For example, the state failed in its obligation to deliver textbooks to schools on time. It required Judge Jody Kollapen’s intervention to force the department to oblige.

When President Jacob Zuma implored teachers to be in class on time and teach, the call fell on deaf ears. The department failed to rein in those who ignored the order. This happened against the backdrop of the government’s declaration of education as being “at the apex of priorities”.

It is a sad indictment of democracy when those entrusted to manage education abrogate responsibility.

The Department of Basic Education, in partnership with relevant stakeholders, agreed to sign off on the delivery agreement for the basic education sector, whose objectives are to (a) improve the quality of basic education, (b) improve the quality of teaching and learning (c) undertake regular assessment to track progress (d) improve early childhood development and (e) ensure credible, outcomes – focused planning and accountability system. There was great anticipation and expectation for drastic changes in the system. We looked forward to improved teaching and learner performance and achievement.

Changing a system is a complex process that requires meticulous planning (implementation and monitoring), resources (human and physical) and using research intelligence to facilitate the change process.

Perhaps bridge construction can be used as a metaphor to explain how we can fix educational challenges. Bridges are special in that they symbolise connectivity and reconciliation.

When geotechnical engineers construct bridges, they spend enormous time on design and foundation (piling, drilled shafts, spread footing, aerodynamics, cables, and so on) to ensure the bridges are quality-assured. When deciding where to construct a bridge, the engineers must reflect on the environmental impact, natural hazard mitigation, economic efficiency and sustainability.

Only then do they set out to construct bridges that connect people, cities and the world. And there are spectacular bridges across the world.

Changing education requires some bridge construction to affirm the system’s foundation.

The first bridge to construct is civic engagement and advocacy – about the vision, mission and goals of the system. When citizens understand the education strategy, they can play an active role and offer skills to affirm and contribute to change.

The second bridge is to forge strategic partnerships and alliances with relevant stakeholders to plan lasting solutions to the ills of education. Private sector, higher education institutions can leverage their skills expertise to transform schools.

The third bridge is infrastructure capacitation, beneficiation and utilisation. Again partnerships and piggybacking on the state’s massive infrastructure development project could bring desired effects.

The fourth bridge is strengthening internal school structures, governance and management systems. The management of schools has evolved and needs personnel steeped in knowledge and understanding of complex systems. School governing bodies need comprehensive training and retraining to master the trade of governance. They also must understand the sociological aspects of schooling and constant conflicts they must manage.

The fifth bridge is balancing the highly unionised teaching environment. The SA Democratic Teachers Union is a strategic political member of the ANC-led tripartite alliance by virtue of its affiliation to Cosatu. That gives it undue leverage on a number of demands. It can call for industrial strikes whenever it sees fit. There should be robust engagement on teacher unionisation, teacher autonomy and professional obligation to create the much needed balance.

The sixth bridge is to create effective and accountable leadership. Education needs leaders that are the flame that lights the school and gives the school community as sense of pride and unique recognition of their contribution.

The seventh bridge is to address the big elephant in the room – poverty. Research shows that poverty affects the cognitive development of learners. Perhaps it’s time to implement the initiatives driven by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development on poverty alleviation and regional co-operation. Given the high number of unemployed young people, it is time to reinvent the National Youth Development Agency to fulfil its mandate in a non-partisan manner. It can become a vibrantincubator for entrepreneurs and sustainable livelihoods.

The eighth bridge is to strengthen the education management information systems to capture accurate data about schools, pupils, teachers and infrastructure to enable the state to plan better.

The ninth bridge is to have the political will and commitment to act decisively when things go wrong. It is hoped that Zuma will assert his authority given his overwhelming re-election at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung to change the way the government does business.

The final bridge is to transform school environments by improving safety and security and dealing with incidences of bullying decisively.

l Lebusa Monyooe is a Pretoria-based commentator with special interest in education and expertise in curriculum design and development.