The Big Read: A standard is set for disaster

13 July 2017 - 07:29 By jonathan jansen
Classroom. File photo.
School desks Classroom. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

There is this silly moment in one of Leon Schuster's slapstick comedies where a policeman is writing his street-side report about a body lying on the pavement. He is struggling, however, to spell the word "pavement". After several attempts he kicks the body from pavement to street and the problem is solved: "The body is lying on the street."

I could not help thinking of this silliness when the announcement came that the Department of Basic Education was considering dropping the requirement that pupils pass mathematics in the senior phase (Grades 7-9) to progress further.

Without blushing, officials explained that lowering the standard in these grades was to "align" the standard with the higher grades; in other words, dumbing downwards as well.

What to do with the high failure rates in mathematics has, for a while, preoccupied the minds of the politicians and the bureaucrats who do their bidding; in fact, in 2016, pupils who failed mathematics by the existing low standard (40%) received a condoned pass in Grades 7-9 if they achieved a mere 20%.

What is the pavement problem here? The department does not know how to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics in schools. So, instead of fixing this problem, they plan to kick tens of thousands of bodies into the streets by removing their obligation to improve the educational and life chances of mainly black and poor children through school mathematics. In other words, rather than solve the problem at the input side of the educational equation (making competent mathematics teachers) they wreck lives by lowering the standard at the output side (dropping the achievement standard for mathematics).

The political upside? Thousands of pupils now pass through high school, thereby putting a gloss on the dropout and success rates of young South Africans from junior high school through the matriculation examinations.

I can already see the minister beaming at the annual charade of the Grade 12 announcement of results - we now have many more pupils sitting for and passing this important school-leaving examination. In the feverish celebration of those events, none of our education journalists would raise the point about dishonesty and deception in the manipulation of the outcome.

Let me be clear: there is no educational justification for this kind of recklessness visited on the lives of our children. Every single teacher or academic that I know has been stunned by this irresponsible plan. That the department would even contemplate such a decision for mainly poor and black pupils makes a lie out of the pretence that this government cares about the poorest of the poor.

Mathematics is not about symbols and equations. It is the most direct and efficient way in which to learn the skills of logic, reasoning and calculation. It is through mathematics that children learn how to solve simple and complex problems through the application of the mind. Maths teaches patience, discipline and the thrill of resolution. More than the intellectual fulfilment and human qualities that come from mastery of the subject, no serious career after school can be pursued in this century without a good pass in mathematics.

What the department has also done, therefore, is channel large majorities of pupils into dead-end career options. Say goodbye, young people, to jobs in quantity surveying or optometry or engineering or accountancy and the actuarial sciences.

There are two reasons the government gets away with such bad decisions. One, there is not enough of a public outcry from parents. The poor have been effectively disempowered in the educational stakes of their children and the middle classes are happy if their children do well. Two, the majority union supports this decision since it takes the heat off their fee-paying members, the teachers.

We need an "Equal Education" movement that goes beyond school infrastructure to mobilise communities to set minimal standards for maths and science. We need a "FeesMustFall" movement that insists "standards must rise" in the schools of the poor. We need parents who, instead of closing schools to get a tarred road, channel those energies into making sure the department appoints and trains the best mathematics teachers in primary schools for their children.

Without such political pressure, we dare not complain when one generation of youth after another is kicked onto the streets of unemployment and becomes part of the social unrest and frustration that has its roots in a school system that failed the children by not expecting much from them in the first place.