This is the opinion of Gail Campbell, CEO of the Zenex Foundation, an independent education trust that funds the delivery of programmes and projects in Maths, Science and Language education in South Africa.
“At the start of the new school year it is worth reminding teachers and parents that, in spite of the many shortcomings in our education system, continued focused support for young learners can massively benefit their school results,” says Campbell.
“This support should not only address learning backlogs and knowledge gaps, but also provide psychosocial and emotional support. Strategies such as peer support and mentoring from teachers and parents can play a key role in the improved academic performance of young people. It would ensure that those learners already at school gets the necessary backing, and eventually help the country achieve a meaningful and sustainable positive change in its education outcomes,” she continues.
The Zenex Foundation’s High School Learner Programme aims to increase the number of learners who obtain quality passes – above 60% in the National Senior Certificate (NSC) – in Maths, Science and English. The programme identifies previously disadvantaged learners on the basis of race, education and socio-economic disadvantages, who show sufficient academic potential providing wrap-around support to the learners.
“Our organisation has recently evaluated the effects of our learner programme and even though there are still many challenges in our education system, we are encouraged by the findings,” says Campbell. “It has demonstrated that the right kind of support can significantly improve a learner’s results.”
According to Campbell, this support can be replicated in the range of supplementary support offered to Grade 12 learners by government in all the provinces.
Over the past three years, 90 % of the 1 354 selected learners in the Zenex Foundation High School Programme achieved a Bachelor pass in the NSC. More than 60% of the learners in the programme achieved quality passes in Maths and Science.
“This is a positive result in the South African context of severe educational backlogs, but we are more encouraged by the increase in the number of learners enrolling in degrees related to fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM),” says Campbell.
According to the study, 80% of the programme’s learners entered tertiary study, and the proportion of these who enrolled in STEM-related degrees increased from 23% in 2012 to 63% in 2016.
She believes there is an inordinate focus on the NSC results every year, whilst the quality of the results is not given due consideration.
“Last year saw fewer learners enrolled for Maths and Science in the NSC than in 2016, while the number of bachelor passes has also declined against 2016. From our experience in learner evaluations and placements, it is clear that there are significant learning backlogs that inhibit the academic development of learners, and prevent them from achieving quality passes in these important subjects,” she says.
“For these learners, some fundamental foundational basics have not been mastered and learning deficits that were acquired early on, have mounted up. This cumulative deficit is extremely negative for students’ future learning journeys.”
However, regardless of the extent of the backlogs, Campbell reiterates that it is never too late for learners to work on improving their performance in key subjects.
“The important differentiator in the Zenex programmes has been the holistic, ongoing support over a five-year period, given to the learners in our programme.”
The Zenex Foundation has designed supplementary programmes to allow for extra time focused on curriculum content, through weekend and after-hour classes, as well as targeted camps and holiday programmes.
“In addition to curriculum content and examination preparation, we emphasise providing differentiated support to address learning backlogs and provide extended support to the learners in our programmes,” she says.
Campbell also reiterates the importance of cementing English language skills throughout the key phases of learners’ school years.
“English proficiency is a necessary condition for success in Maths and Science, given that these subjects are taught in English, which is a second language for the majority of learners in South Africa. One of the most successful strategies that Zenex has used to enhance English proficiency is reading: this is a crucial component of any support programme, as it is key to building vocabulary and helping the development of learners’ language skills.”
Campbell highlights three other important lessons from the Zenex study:
• Post-school access for learners as part of support network before learners leave school: “Learners from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds have little support and access to social capital which can help them to navigate the post-school system. This process should include help with career choices, application for studies and financing, as well as preparation for future academic study.”
• Teacher support is crucial to sustainable education improvement: “Working with learners will improve the quality of passes over the short term, but the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
• The measurement and evaluation of learner support programmes has to consider more than marks: “The matric pass rate is one metric, but we also need to measure access, retention and throughput. Most importantly, we need to evaluate the extent to which young people are accessing the world of work and contributing meaningfully to our country’s economy and future.”
She concludes that, while the challenges facing South Africa’s education system may seem daunting, it is never too late to work on achieving improvements.
“We have found that investing focused time to support a learner goes a long way in helping them achieve more. Even small improvements can make a significant difference in a young person’s life and future journey – but we have to make their support our priority.”