Assessing health of our education

10 September 2013

Phumla WilliamsThere will be an unusual silence in classrooms across the country today. The sounds of teaching and learning will come to a halt for a good purpose.

This morning more than 7 million pupils in the foundational (Grades 1 to 3) and intermediate phase (Grades 4, 6 and 9) in public schools and certain independent schools are in examination mode.

They will over the next three days be tested on their literacy and numeracy skills in Annual National Assessments (ANA), standardised tests undertaken by the Department of Basic Education.

The purpose of these assessments is to track and benchmark the literacy and numeracy levels in the country and measure them against our targets. The results will also guide school programmes in these areas of learning.

 The government has set a national benchmark of 60 per cent of pupils attaining acceptable levels in literacy and numeracy by next year and 90 per cent by 2024.

ANA draws from our experience and participation in international assessment programmes which makes it a world-class initiative. It places South Africa on par with countries such as the United States that also conducts its own assessment through the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The government places emphasis on these assessments as they identify problems in the education system and help in developing targeted interventions.

Historically, we have relied on measuring performance of pupils at the end of Grade 12, which is often too late for meaningful intervention.

Information from these tests have assisted schools to improve their academic plans, identify challenges in the curriculum, develop teachers and to identify additional learning materials.

 Trends in the ANA results show a steady increase in the performance. In Grade 3, literacy performance improved from 35 per cent in 2011 to 52 per cent last year while numeracy performance increased from 28 per cent to 41 per cent.

In Grade 6, performance in languages stood at 43 per cent last year compared to 28 per cent in 2011.

In his State of the Nation Address President Jacob Zuma said: “The Annual National Assessments in our schools have become a powerful tool of assessing the health of our education system.”

“We welcome the improvement each year in the ANA results, but more must be done to improve maths, science and technology.”

In Grade 6 maths performance decreased to 27 per cent last year compared with 30 per cent in 2011. Grade 9 learners who were assessed for the first time last year performed above 50 per cent in literacy, but low in mathematics.

For many of our critics the ANA results are an end in themselves used to bemoan the work undertaken in education. Contrary to this, ANA is the first step in raising our performance and building a better education system.

Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, said: “The particularly low learner performance in maths at the intermediate and senior phases justifies the steps we have already taken to focus on teacher professional development and provision of learning and teaching support materials at the higher school grades.”

It is however not all doom and gloom in maths and science. The 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for South Africa pointed to large improvements in the maths and science competencies of Grade 9s when compared to those tested in 2002.

South Africa’s improvement in maths of 67 TIMSS points between 2002 and 2011, or seven points a year on average, is among the sharpest recorded by participants.

The government’s commitment to education is demonstrated through its strong financial support of R207 billion. This accounts for 21 per cent of our national budget and more than 5 per cent of gross domestic product which places South Africa in the same league as developed countries such as the United States, Netherlands and Austria.

We should however point out that our financial commitment has not always translated into the gains we have wanted. It is through initiatives such as ANA that we will ensure a better return on investment. In this regard, R167 million has been allocated to expand the assessments system over the next three years.

Since 1994, the government has strengthened the education system which remains the cornerstone of our efforts to overcome many of the social and economic challenges we inherited.

We have recorded key successes in education; the 2012 development indicators show an 18.4 per cent increase between 2007 and 2011 in children under the age of four years attending early childhood development facilities.

Furthermore, the number of children enrolled in Grade R doubled between 2003 and 2011 from 300 000 to 705 000. Last year the numbers of enrolments at primary school between girls and boys were almost equal.

We have provided free basic education to more than 8 million pupils in no-fee schools. In addition, our national nutrition programme provides meals to about 8.8 million pupils, and increased from 4.9 million in 1999.

ANA is one of our successes programmes and we encourage everyone to use it to help build our education system.

Parents play a central role and must invest time in their children’s schooling. Through ANA, they are provided with a clear picture of their children’s performance to support their studies at home.

Education is central to development of the country. Parents, guardians and community leaders who interact with young people should support government’s programme of improving our education system.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)