20% is just the tip of the iceberg

This piece was originally featured in the Pretoria News on 13 December 2016

When Brian Schreuder announced last week that the pass mark in mathematics for Grades 7 to 9 has been lowered to 20%, a social media frenzy ensued. Many decried the condition of the South African education system and pointed accusing fingers at this “sad state of affairs”.

Clearly, our country’s education system is in crisis but I’d like to offer an alternative viewpoint for you to consider:

Firstly, if people had bothered to research the issue in any detail, they would have discovered that the 20% pass mark being bandied about refers to an interim policy allowing schools to condone learners to the next grade who do not pass Mathematics with 40%, only if they have met all other pass requirements, and have obtained more than 20% in Mathematics. This is very different to a blanket 20% pass mark in Mathematics. 20%, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, the horrific legacy of the Bantu Education Act remains a daily reality for the majority of learners in South Africa. While this atrocity no longer exists in law, the majority of South Africa’s school going population still suffer the deep repercussions of this injustice. And, It doesn’t take maths guru to figure that out.

As a result, greater than the “shock” of the Education Department’s interim policy, is the assault of our current educational crisis on the dignity of many school children. If we contextualise the Department’s decision by considering South Africa’s educational legacy, and understand that quality education is about individuals, who might not be mathematically inclined, the armchair critics’ outrage seems misplaced. Let’s be honest; to withhold a Grade 7, 8 or 9 pass from a child who is meeting the standard in every other respect except mathematics, simply doesn’t make sense. To do so only exacerbates the crisis. School systems that fail to recognise, and value, the worth of every individual, simply have to be challenged; because individual children matter. How dare we snuff out their desire to learn, too early!

We have to start by reevaluating our current curriculum as a matter of urgency. We desperately need educational programmes that prepare bright, young South Africans for an uncertain future. If we are to believe the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, our current crop of Grade 8s — by the time they look for work in 2021 — will need to master, amongst others; critical thinking, people management, coordinating with others, and complex problem solving. Without negating the importance of mathematics, should the brightest educational minds in our country not be thinking innovatively about how to prepare these students for the future? Should the brightest and most innovative teachers in our midst, not be leading the charge to solve the crisis we currently face?

Furthermore, we need money. And, we need it yesterday. Subsidising the right solutions, managed by the right people, will open the doors of opportunity for many eager, but underprivileged students. Business needs to step up to the plate. Surely our country’s future is a worthwhile enough investment. Instead of decrying the quality of teachers in this country, let’s see more investment in teacher training and internship programmes. Hand in hand with the best schools in the country, corporate South Africa could develop sustainable programmes that equip quality educators with the skills they need to face the challenges of our historical disadvantage.

In short, we need an educational revolution. We need to combine our efforts for the sake of our children. And, we have to start by acknowledging the whole picture, because 20 percent is just the tip of the iceberg.