We’ve had two weeks to digest the 2023 NSC results and to look beyond the self-congratulatory political electioneering and the media hype. I fully realise that the cohort in question was most seriously affected by the pandemic, but having a lifetime of Grade 12 experience, I know that the learners would not have been disadvantaged by Umalusi. In truth, many subjects’ marks had to be adjusted downwards with the school-based assessment advantage lost in umpteen cases because it fell outside the final exam performance parameters.

Firstly, let me share a personal response. As a coach, in the last five years, I have worked closely with nine principals in underserved high schools. If I were a politician, I would be very happy with four of them because they have remained stable around a 90% pass rate. As a coach, though, I would have liked to have seen better progress in key areas. But, the other five, although stable, remain fragile and deeply disappointing, despite dedicated leadership and committed teachers.

The purpose of a school is to prepare learners to become good citizens with the knowledge, skills and attitude necessary to live independent, free and fulfilling lives. In the communities I serve we are way off the mark.

My previous province, the Free State, was placed No1 with an 89,3% pass rate but it has the lowest throughput rate. Only 54,9 of Grade 10s in 2021 passed matric in 2023. In comparison, the Western Cape had a pass rate of 81,54% but a throughput rate of 69,3%. In Limpopo the Grade 10 repetition rate in 2022 was 35%. These are stats provided by highly rated, Prof Servaas van der Berg of the University of Stellenbosch’s Research on Socioeconomic Policy Unit and quoted by Tamara Khan in Business Day, 29/01/24. He describes our education system as ‘abysmally inefficient’.

Prof Jonathan Jansen, whom I know well and rate, is a thorn in the side of the system because he talks truth to power. Although written off by many as super-critical and unconventional, he has worked tirelessly to research schools that work and to provide hundreds of pages of regular, practical and inspirational professional advice to principals, teachers and learners. To my mind, he asks the right questions (Daily Dispatch, 25/1/24).

Which 80% do you choose as the better indicator of the health of the SA school system? The 82,9% NSC pass rate or the internationally benchmarked study that showed that 81% of Grade 4s cannot read for meaning in any language? Surely that is the right question.

In the same time I have coached 17 primary school principals in the Cape Town metro. I have absolutely no doubt that that is where the solution lies. We need serious teacher upgrading in ECD and in Foundation Phase and a strong focus on resources at those levels. We need principals and school leadership teams who are skilled in the teaching technologies of FP literacy and numeracy. But, more than anything, we need the political and the professional will and the emphasis on competence and accountability to get our teachers to guide 100% of learners to reading and writing fluency before they start Grade 4.

As principals we can’t wait for the right context or for the system to upgrade teachers and teaching. We are the key deliverers of the system. A school’s professional development programme should focus unequivocally on helping every FP teacher to meet the teaching milestones of every term. This involves high quality leadership, genuine collaboration and sincere commitment.

Principals, you’ve had that one-page NSC Summary Report on your desk. It’s a clear window into your school’s academic standard and its major educational strengths and weaknesses.

Use your systemic thinking training to understand the contextual factors underpinning the extensive detail that accompanies the learners’ individual result advice information. Have your teams studied this page? Have you compared your school with your statistical neighbours?

Even your current Grade 12 learners have much to learn from the detail being shared with them in a positive and proactive way.

If you are a primary school principal, you are awaiting your systemic results. They, too, provide a credible and relevant benchmark for evaluating your functionality as a school. You, too, have all the detail and the chance to compare your systemics with your Grade 3 and Grade 6 November internal assessment.

We all trust our medical professionals to study our blood tests, sonars and scans with pinpoint accuracy and expertise so that a pathway to recovery and health can be determined. We owe our teachers and our learners the same professionalism.

Til next time.

The Principals Academy Trust

No: 02/24
30 January 2024