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UJ education experts on the credibility of the national senior certificate (NSC)

The annual frenzy of attacking the education system obscures the advances made. This is according to Professors Sarah Gravett and Elizabeth Henning.

Prof Gravett, the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) together with Prof Henning, the National Research Foundation SA Research Chair: Integrated studies of learning language, science and mathematics in the primary school in the Centre for Education Practice Research at University’s Soweto campus, recently penned an opinion piece published by the Sunday Times.

When matric-results fever clears, there is a reason to celebrate – Professors Sarah Gravett and Elizabeth Henning

It happens every year. The social temperature rises and the diagnoses flood the media. The comments stream in and matric-result fever spreads, lashing out quite harshly at the public education system.

It is not surprising that the release of the results generates a flurry of comment. What is surprising, though, is the one-sidedness (and in some cases even vitriolic nature) of some of the remarks.

Many of the comments do not relate to the matric results as such, but to the state of education in general. The announcement is year after year, the catalyst for a storm of communication in which good news does not seem to be travelling as fast as bad news.

What are some of the improvements that could be acknowledged? We highlight a few:

The 78.2% attained (national senior certificates obtained divided by learners who wrote the examination) equals the highest achievement since 2013, but this time with a stabilised curriculum. The credibility of the national senior certificate (NSC) is assured by Umalusi — an independent body comprising education experts and statisticians.

The offering of 11 new matric subjects, mainly technical, is a positive development. These subjects open pathways that are more flexible for young people.

There is continued improvement in achievement by learners from quintile 1 to 3 schools (mainly historically disadvantaged schools serving black African learners) — also in terms of Bachelor passes.

There was some improvement in key subjects such as economics and accounting, maths and physical sciences. The physical science target set in the government’s Medium-Term Strategic Framework was exceeded, and the system came close to achieving the mathematics target.

However, far from ideal, there is an upward trajectory, which can be attributed mainly to more high-level subject passes in historically disadvantaged schools.

Another maths- and science-related improvement in the system that should be noted is in relation to the international tests that SA participates in. In the

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessments (2015), SA showed the largest improvement since 2003 of any country in the world in these assessments, with an increase of 87 points in maths and 90 points in science. Though these improvements move from a low base, the trajectory is upward.

The minister of education acknowledged in her announcement of the results the important role that partnerships play in uplifting the education system, which is paying positive dividends in terms of quality and efficiency. Much of the work with partners is coordinated through the National Education Collaboration Trust in thousands of our schools.

Another possible reason noted in the NSC Examination Report of 2018 for the upward trajectory in the education system relates to the subject knowledge of teachers. The in-depth analysis of the 2007 and

2013 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality teacher test scores show that the subject knowledge of teachers from the post-2000 teacher education system “is vastly superior to that of older teachers”.

The report states “while the transition to university-based teacher education has not been without problems, the data suggest that it was necessary, and has contributed to raising the quality of teaching in the classroom”.

As teacher educators, we are pleased with this positive development. However, we also take heed of the criticism of teacher education in relation to the disparity of quality of teacher education in the system.

The good news is that much is done to address this, in particular for primary school education through initiatives spearheaded by the department of higher education. These include the Primary Teacher Education Project, which involves all 24 universities offering initial teacher education and workgroup focus on literacy, maths, material development, assessment and work-integrated learning.

To quote Dr Whitfield Green, chief director: teaching, learning and research development, department of higher education, we must have “teachers strong in knowledge and competent in practice”.

This year, with the announcement of the NSC, results the dropout rate again received much attention, and rightly so. The NSC examination report notes the concern that just under half of young South Africans do not obtain the NSC, and the minister has highlighted this dilemma many times. According to Nic Spaull, a researcher at ReSEP (Research on SocioEconomic Policy), only 40% of learners who entered the education system actually passed if dropouts are factored in.

We agree with many commentators that the high number of youth who do not obtain the NSC, and who thus leave the schooling system without a formal qualification, is a serious concern. However, solely blaming the minister of education or the department of education for this problem is simplistic.

Though we are not aware of a formal study that has been conducted on who the dropouts from the system are, it makes sense that the majority would be from socio-economically deprived circumstances. In addition, if one factor in child development and learning in the first five years of life, the responsibility of early development of, especially, our country’s children from poor families, requires much more investment and care from society as a whole. The road from birth to grade R consists of many milestones that the department can hardly address.

So where to go with the schooling system? For sure, we must continue with the development and support of schools in every way possible and in every partnership that is feasible. Nevertheless, we must also demand accountability from all role-players. We need development, support and, always, accountability. Above all, we must continue to invest in early years of schooling.

  • The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.
prof sarah gravett
Professor Sarah Gravett

 

prof elizabeth henning
Professor Elizabeth Henning
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