WHAT ARE WE DOING WRONG? 8 MISTAKES
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of policies, projects and programmes that aim to change South African schools. All of them have some positive effects on our schools that might explain the marginal increases in achievement scores. But after almost 20 years we remain at the bottom when compared to other developing countries, and most of our schools fail to obtain the marks required in major subjects.
In other words, while individual schools or clusters of schools change, systemic change is not happening. So what are we doing wrong?
“[Our principal] goes all the way out to instil a group spirit in all the educators. It requires team effort and group consultation. She tries to think what others are thinking, not just her individual thoughts. As a teacher it makes me feel good that my views are taken into account and my opinions are valued. That’s the most important thing. You know once you feel that you are important, you are a very key role in decision-making, if you are very significant in the success of a school it makes every teacher feel very proud.”
Sindhu Mathews, Physical Sciences teacher, Sol Plaatje Secondary School, North West
M I S T A K E # 1
We overburden schools and teachers with complex policies and demanding curricula when what is required are very simple things such as enough desks, competent teachers and clear timetables.
“I believe in structure. I believe in a definite pattern of doing things. We must start at a certain time, children must know they shouldn’t hang around in the hallways; they should be in their classes where they will receive their tuition. Teachers must know, ‘I must be in my class. I must be teaching the children. I must educate them; this is why I’m here.’ And children must also know they have to study. Everything can only take place if we all strive toward the same goal and this is really to make the school a place where children can learn.”
Verna Jeremiah, Principal, Heatherdale Secondary School, Free State
M I S T A K E # 2
We introduce all kinds of innovations and changes into schools, assuming that schools in South Africa are stable environments that can absorb these interventions.
“[When] I came here, the school was hopeless. That year we got 23% in matric. It was not promising at all. To change things was easy because I realised it’s not the teachers who are not working, it’s the management that is not making them work. Every year we were improving the pass rate by about 10%. I’ve been trying to get 100% and then in 2012 I got it. My vision is that this school remains on top. That is why I have a slogan that says ‘Learners First’. In most cases, they come back, they [say], ‘What you did for us was very good because where we are now, we are seen as perfect people because we started from here.’”
Edward Gabada, Principal, Mpondombini Secondary School, Eastern Cape
M I S T A K E # 3
We lack the social will to confront and change the enormous political obstacles – among them the teachers’ unions and dysfunctional provinces – to successful interventions in schools. We only engage in short-term crisis management when there is public scandal, rather than responding with solid solutions.
“What [our principal] has done is be open to the ideas that are coming with the educators, coming with the many stakeholders who are responsible for the school. I think that is what has made this school
change. He’s allowing the educators to invent whatever they want to invent as long as it is going to assist the learners. He has a passion. He wants this school to go further and further. If he’s asking you what interventions you are doing and you say, ‘I’ve done everything,’ he’ll say, ‘No, I’ve not seen that you have done everything. Try some more.’”
Eudora Nklabathi, Life Sciences teacher, Masiphumelele High School, Western Cape
M I S T A K E # 4
We focus on the generic training of teachers when what we should be doing is providing development and support inside the classroom in the real contexts of where and how teachers work.
“Some learners lack the basic skills that they should have acquired even from primary school and now the learner is in grade 10 and we have to bridge the gap. And that becomes a challenge for us because it’s like now you are doing a double job. And because we want them to succeed, believe you me, we do these things. We even teach them things that we feel, oh, you were supposed to have learnt this before you came to high school, but we are fixing it now. What can you say? It’s all in the line of duty, I guess.”
Lulu Nxumalo, English teacher, Masana Secondary School, Mpumalanga
M I S T A K E # 5
We fail to establish solid foundations for learning early in the school cycle, with the result that learners in the later grades remain in a constant state of “catch-up” that is exacerbated by policies that demand principals promote failing children to the next grade.
“We’ve got 1 738 learners. In reality, we are running two schools in one. We have classes where we have 68 learners in a class and it is a challenge, how to go on with teaching and learning in such a big class. But we are not to look back. There might be 68, there might be 70 in that class, but when they reach grade 12, they are going to pass. We are still going to produce the dream that we have and the dream that we will always cherish, to produce 100% pass.”
Shumi Shongowe, Principal, Phumlani Secondary School, Gauteng
M I S T A K E # 6
We have become obsessed with pathology, the things that go wrong, failing to recognise that there are powerful examples of schools that work and which offer the seeds of hope for large-scale school renewal in the South African context.
“Our school is situated in a deep rural area. Parents from near and far want to bring their children to this school. Currently we have a total enrolment of 2 221 learners. The enrolment of the school keeps growing because of the reputation that the school has. We find it difficult to refuse, to say we no longer have space, and some parents are finding it very difficult to understand that their children cannot come here. So it becomes a challenge to us as well when we have to refuse some learners admission.”
Nkhangweni Nemudzivhadi, Principal, Thengwe Secondary School, Limpopo
M I S T A K E # 7
We invest in often-expensive, small-scale initiatives that deliver predictably good results for small numbers of black and poor students; the problem is that the majority of otherwise-noble interventions remain beyond the reach of most people.
“At Mbilwi we go for quality. Because an ordinary pass, it will not help our children and it won’t help our country. But just imagine if we can pass one learner and that learner becomes a doctor in that family. That poor family. Just imagine the salary that will run through that family.”
Cedric Lidzhade, Principal, Mbilwi Secondary School, Limpopo
M I S T A K E # 8
We mislead the public with inflated accounts of success when the standard of passing is so low, and the performance of the few good schools conceals the performance of the many bad schools because we only see the average score for all of them.