What can Each of Us do to Turn our Schools into Centres of Excellence | Western Cape Government

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What can Each of Us do to Turn our Schools into Centres of Excellence

30 August 2009
Professor O'Connell
Graeme Bloch
Dr Ramphele
Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am honoured to be one of the guest speakers in the Development Bank of Southern Africa's Education Conversation Series. I have been invited here tonight to participate in the discussion on how we can turn our schools into centres of excellence.

During the last four months I have visited close on 100 schools throughout the Western Cape. Visiting these schools has been a learning process equal to none. I have seen first-hand the many challenges that we face in our schools, but I have also been fortunate enough to witness how successful interventions like those that we will discuss tonight, can help to create centres of excellence in our education system.

But let me be frank; South Africa is in an education crisis. As a country, our performance at every level - primary and secondary - is falling way below international standards.

We are cultivating an ill-educated youth unable to take advantage of life's opportunities or contribute meaningfully to an open, democratic society - let alone compete in an increasingly tough and unforgiving global environment.

Nick Taylor, Chief Executive Officer of JET Education Services, stated recently that we are "reproducing gross levels of inequality in our society, rather then serving as a conveyer belt out of poverty".

I have to agree.

Currently, 70% of young people, aged 15 to 34, remain unemployed in South Africa. Even those learners who are able to obtain a matriculation endorsement are not prepared for tertiary education.

Recent studies have found that the majority of our first-year students at universities across the country do not have the language and comprehension skills to handle university study without additional support. It has also been found that only a tiny proportion of students possess the mathematical skills required in higher education.

The National Benchmarking Test (NBT) project commissioned by Higher Education SA (Hesa) found that only 43% of students were proficient in academic literacy, 25% in quantitative literacy and a mere 8% in mathematics.

The truth is we are failing our youth at the school level, beginning in Grade R in the Foundation Phase.

Literacy and numeracy results in Grades 3 and 6 confirm this. Last week the Department of Education reported to the Portfolio Committee in Parliament that four out of every five Grade 6 pupils cannot read or write at the required level, and that a similar assessment for Grade 3 shows that only two in every five Grade 3 pupils meet the required levels when tested.

Equipping our learners with the skills they require to be literate and numerate is a non-negotiable. Literacy is fundamental to all areas of learning, and numeracy helps to ensure that learners make progress in other areas of their learning.

Many see the Western Cape education system as the best in the country. However, while the Western Cape's matric pass rate is higher than that of other Provinces, the figure is dropping. In 2004 we achieved an 85% pass rate, but this has dropped steadily over the past 5 years to 78.67% in 2008.

The lower pass rate, combined with the greater number of learners participating in matric exams, implies that the WCED is not able to sustain the same quality of education across the board.

Our literacy and numeracy results are also particularly disturbing. The Province's assessment results for 2004-2008 for Grade 3 and Grade 6 literacy and numeracy, reveal that on average, 900 (86%) of our primary schools achieve less than a 40% pass rate (50% or better) in numeracy for Grade 6.

Currently, too many of our learners are being pushed through the system, despite being unable to master literacy and numeracy in the appropriate grade. Unable to cope at higher levels, many of these learners either drop out of school or fail to pass Grade 12.

According to the latest Annual Survey for Schools, of the 97 864 learners who enrolled in public schools in the Western Cape in 1997, only 43 470 made it to Grade 12. Of those learners who remained in school, only 33% qualified for a matric exemption.

Statistics such as these should oblige us to rethink about the way in which we run our schools. We are obviously not providing the quality of education that our learners deserve. Too many learners are being taught by ill-qualified teachers and too many of our schools are being managed by principals who lack the requisite leadership to manage their schools effectively.

If we are even going to begin to turn our schools into Centres of Excellence we shall have to deal with, among other things, the problems associated with the training of our teachers and principals, and how we can improve their skills and assist them in the classroom.

I was pleased to hear President Jacob Zuma acknowledge this at the Principals' imbizo in Durban earlier this month when he said that we had "essentially come together to launch a new drive to truly change the learning, teaching and management of our schools".

This is desperately needed and what we are striving to achieve in the Western Cape every day.

School leadership and management

One of the main priorities of our administration is to improve the leadership and management of our schools, starting with the underperforming schools.

A centre of excellence needs a good leader, responsible for the management and day-to-day functioning of the school. However, if a principal does not have the requisite skills, knowledge or management expertise, a well-functioning school can be driven into the ground. It is therefore critical that we ensure that all principals have the skills and knowledge to lead their schools effectively.

Many of our schools in the Western Cape are led by ineffective principals. This is not necessarily their fault, as many of them have been placed in these positions despite their obvious lack of expertise and in many instances have not been provided with the necessary training to become effective managers of their schools.

In line with our priority to improve the leadership and management in schools, we have, with the support of the private sector, initiated a pilot programme with Metro East Principals, with a particular focus on Khayelitsha to restore positive energy to our schools offices, classrooms and playing fields.

The course includes general leadership skills, time management and accountability. The feedback from the first two training sessions has been overwhelmingly positive and we are contemplating the roll-out of this programme through all regions in due course.

The WCED's Cape Learning and Teaching Institute also offers courses to principals for the further development of their leadership skills, assists them to think critically and systematically, and explores daily experiences of leadership within the school setting. These courses are offered throughout the year and during school holidays. We intend intensifying and strengthening these programmes in order to provide all principals in this province with the tools that they require to turn their schools into learning centres of excellence.

There is no doubt that many of our principals are being distracted from their core duties by increased levels of administrative and other responsibilities. To counter this, the WCED has taken up the challenge to develop a South African version of the UK Certificate in School Business Management, entitled the Certificate of School Business Administration or CSBA.

A school business manager is a member of staff who helps to ensure the smooth and successful running of a school. School business managers support head teachers (principals) with strategic and operational issues, especially human resources, finance, administration and facilities management. In the UK, head teachers have reported a reduced workload, with the potential to free up to 30 percent of their time as administrative functions are taken over by the school business manager.

The pilot project will come to an end when the first cohort of students graduate in November 2009 and, as from 2010, the CSBA will be rolled out by the respective FET colleges in the metropolitan area of Cape Town, as well as in rural areas.

We believe that this will go a long way in assisting principals in our schools.

Quality teaching and learning in the classroom

In order to turn a school into a centre of excellence, one first needs to get back to basics and deal head-on with essential elements that determine the successful functioning of any school.

Put simply, schools need to have their 5T's in order.

Time on Task
Teacher preparedness and knowledge
Ensuring that Textbooks and other materials are available
Ensuring equitable access to Technology interventions
And, Testing

Time on Task
Teacher and learner "time on task" is critical as it affects the quantity and quality of learning time.

According to a 2005 Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) report, while teachers are expected to spend on average between 64% and 79% of the 35-hour week teaching, they could only manage 46% of the 35-hour week, an average of 3.2 hours a day.

In schools that have overcrowded classrooms and high teacher-to-learner ratios, quality teaching and learning time is further eroded as teachers struggle to attend to individual needs. Learner and teacher absenteeism also plays a major negative role.

It is high time that teachers are held to account for their lack of time in class.

Too many of our schools are ignoring the fact that they fail to give their learners quality learning time.

To tackle this problem, we are investigating possible technology interventions that can monitor learner and teacher absenteeism and attendance, with a view to giving education managers real time statistics on levels of attendance at schools throughout the Western Cape, literally at the touch of a button.

Teacher preparedness

The quality of education cannot exceed the quality of teaching.

To turn a school into a centre of excellence, it is imperative that teachers should be able to convey understanding of a subject to their learner in the proper way. However, many of our teachers lack content knowledge and have a poor pedagogy.
University of Cape Town higher education specialist Nan Yeld recently told the Financial Mail, "We believe that the whole curriculum is not being taught, but only the bits that teachers can manage."

In a study undertaken by the Joint Education Trust (JET) in a sample of rural primary schools, short tests in literacy and mathematics were administered to Grade 3 teachers. These tests were drawn up by selecting items from tests designed to assess the knowledge of Grade 6 learners. The average score on the mathematics test for 25 teachers was 67%. The average score on the language test for 23 teachers was 55%. Unfortunately these results, according to JET, have been replicated in schools across the country, clearly indicating that most of our teachers do not have the skills and knowledge required to teach our learners.

In view of this, the Department has already embarked on a re-training programme for all teachers teaching mathematics in our primary schools. We intend making this programme compulsory, effecting the necessary budget adjustments where required.

Teaching also relies heavily on the organisation of systematic learning. Teachers need to design a clear structure on how the curriculum will be taught. Given the low levels of numeracy in the Province, we hope to assist teachers in organising the structure of their learning and will explore the viability on implementing a lesson-by-lesson plan for all mathematics teachers at primary school level.

A continuing record of teacher performance is also needed in order to tailor teaching to support individual classroom needs.

The literacy and numeracy results reveal that there is a definite need for a "learning support teacher" in each of our primary schools. These teachers could assist learners with specific developmental needs. One of our aims will be to have a "learning support teacher" in every primary school within the next three years.

Additional to a quality curriculum - our young learners must be taught that to succeed in obtaining a job or starting a new business, certain skills are needed to complement a basic education. These skills include, amongst others, the importance of strong work ethics, self-discipline, having a "Can Do" attitude, being appropriately assertive and using one's initiative. Our teachers have an important role to play in teaching our learners these skills.

Textbooks and Technology

tbooks are an essential educational resource for the development of reading, writing and language skills and are also an integral part of the national curriculum. A centre of excellence would provide all the relevant curriculum texts along with additional texts to supplement the development of independent and collaborative learning.

Unfortunately, textbooks are often in short supply and in many schools access to good ones is limited. The sad reality is, according to the Children's Institute, that only 7.2% of public schools in the country have stocked libraries.

Access to technology in our schools is also critical. Learners with access to technology networks are generally more successful than those whose parents are illiterate or where computers and books are not as common in the home.

The WCED has already interceded in this area. The Khanya project has, to date, provided 1 079 schools with computer facilities (42 195 PCs). A further 103 schools are in the process of receiving similar facilities. This is an outstanding achievement, without parallel in South Africa, and possibly in the entire continent.

To improve the quality of teaching in the classroom through the use of technology, we are currently exploring a number of e-learning options. We have installed 969 interactive whiteboards, and a further 525 are in the process of being installed in 150 schools across the province.

We now have a partnership with Mindset Network, which develops and distributes educational content via satellite TV, and in turn, enables schools to use lessons for group teaching by receiving digital content from Mindset via satellite.

We are also, in collaboration with Stellenbosch University, initiating a pilot project where interactive telematic teaching is being used in 10 of the province's schools.

We know for a fact that the creative use of technology is one of the most important ways of improving the quality of teaching in our classrooms and we will therefore leave no stone unturned in rolling out sustainable and innovative technology solutions to the schools of the Western Cape.


In order to turn our schools into centres of excellence, we need to know where our learners' abilities lie. If we do not set benchmarks for our learners and test them against these benchmarks on a regular basis, we will never be able to target individual learning needs.

The Western Cape is the only province that has undertaken to do its own assessment testing at Grade 3 and Grade 6 levels and we will continue to test these learners every two years. We also intend to expand this to include tests which will reflect the range of subjects being studied at Grade 9 level. National exam results at Grade 9 level will be monitored closely to identify subjects and areas requiring targeted intervention.

We will co-operate with schools to set learner achievement benchmarks, to assist them in removing the barriers to achieving these outcomes and to hold principals and teachers accountable for their performance if these outcomes are not achieved, rewarding good performance and punishing poor performance.

In order to help achieve this we are currently reviewing the Western Cape Education Act, and during the course of next year we will table legislation which will enable the Western Cape to have a unique system of public education best able to respond to the myriad of challenges currently confronting us.

Other issues affecting schools

From the range of initiatives that I have discussed here, it is clear that we are working hard to ensure that our learners get the quality of education that they deserve. But, there are a number of other outstanding issues that must be resolved before we can turn our schools into centres of excellence.

These include a stable and safe school environment, access to basic infrastructure such as water and sanitation, and extra-curricular activities that can contribute to a healthy and creative lifestyle. Many of these issues require input from other sectors and I am positive that our schools can never become centres of excellence without parental and community support.

Research has shown that the greater the family and community involvement in schools, the greater the learners' achievement and the schools' success.

Last week, I visited a school, Vlakteplaas Primary, just outside Oudtshoorn. This farm school was once housed in a local community church. It had no resources, and was certainly not in an environment conducive to learning. But, with the support of a local businessman and foreign funding, the community has built a dynamic and effective school.

For example, educators at Vlakteplaas realised how important technology was for their learners, particularly in literacy and mathematics, traditionally two problem areas. Acting on this with determination, the school now excels in these subjects, is well-run, has experienced staff with a high morale, and most importantly, has excited and happy learners eager to develop their knowledge and skills.

This school is testimony to the fact that quality education can be achieved even under the most difficult circumstances.

While there is much to be concerned about, there remain beacons of hope in our education system and, with the right systems, political will and levels of support, the thousands of good men and women who are working against the odds to educate our most important asset, our children, are given the levels of support and assistance that they require to provide the type of quality education so desperately deserved by our children.

This is something that none of us should forget.
Thank you.

Media Enquiries: 

Bronagh Casey
Ministry for Education
Cell: 072 7241 422
Email: brcasey@pgwc.gov.za