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Press Release: The black hole of science and maths education

The recent research by Nicholas Spaull and Professor Hamsa Venkatakrishnan released in the Cape Times on 7th August 2014 reveals yet another disaster to add to the litany of inadequacies of the South African education system.  The fact that nearly 80% of Grade 6 teachers can not do what the curriculum expects of their pupils, is sad, yet sadly not surprising. In recent months we have seen endless articles about the poor state of South Africa’s education system, much of which was the subjective opinion of senior executives selected to participate in the World Economic Forum study. Not especially convincing research. However, we do have some good data which reveals things are disastrous and they are not getting any better very quickly.

When the NSC results were released in January 2014 we falsely celebrated a 78.2% national pass rate; this was termed a ‘massive fraud’ by Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State, and not without good reason. Of the 1,261,827 students who entered grade 1 in 2002 only 562,112 sat the examinations. That’s a dropout rate of 55% and most of these students leave between Grade 10 and Grade 12. This process of “culling” students who aren’t going to make it through to matric leaves us with a false sense of security that the performance of our learners and our education system is improving. It’s not. A real pass rate of 35.2% where a pass is achieving above 30% is not something to celebrate.

What’s more is that very few of these students are taking maths and science, with many students being pushed into easier subjects. In 2013 only 49% of students took maths, and only 50% passed. In science only 37% wrote and only 52% passed. If you were to remove the top 20% of privileged, mainly white schools, the lack of science and maths graduates from marginalised communities would become starkly apparent.

And post school education suffers as a result. Students are grossly under-prepared for the difficult process of learning at tertiary level, only 25% of students complete their degrees on time, and more than 50% of enrolled tertiary students will never graduate. Only 5 percent of black South Africans possess any form of tertiary qualification at all.

Of course all of these results are not felt evenly across the country. In South Africa’s privileged suburbs teachers are able to answer the questions on the tests they expect their students to pass; matric pass rates are close to 100% and virtually all students gain a pass (with a much higher chance of having studied maths and science) that will allow them access to a university of their choice. And those young people will likely have the financial, social and personal resources to make it through their degrees on time and move into successful careers.

The results are so skewed that we could make an invalidated correlation between living in a deprived area, coming from a disenfranchised family and community and not being very good at school, not being able to study maths and science and go to university. But there are several models that disprove this hypothesis and LEAP Science and Maths School is one of them.

LEAP is a network of no-fee schools serving young people from marginalised and disadvantaged communities, offering young people the opportunity to study science and maths to the highest level. And they have proven that it can be done. LEAP currently educates almost 1000 students across six schools, with a family centred holistic model of education which aims to address the needs of the whole child from academic, to social and emotional. The school prepares students for the rigors of achieving high standards in the NSC examinations and in the tertiary education context. And every single student studies mathematics and science.

Since its inception in 2004 LEAP has seen more than 600 quality matric passes, and more than 70% of these have entered tertiary education in the fields of finance, engineering, pharmacy, education, business and commerce. The school now has more than 50 tertiary graduates, and in 2013 the school saw its first mathematics Masters graduate.

To make this a reality for students beyond those at LEAP Schools, LEAP is working to become a leader of in-service teacher training in the country. The LEAP Future Leaders programme aims to recruit 10% of the LEAP graduating class into a five-year internship programme which students undertake while studying for their Bachelors of Education through UNISA. The programme is making great strides to elevate the status of the teaching profession, to attract good candidates who are young, committed, energetic and resourceful and can help transform the poor state of teaching in South Africa.

In this sorry state of affairs LEAP is proving that improbable doesn’t have to mean impossible. With successful, replicable and scalable models like LEAP Schools there is hope for South Africa’s failing education system and for the country as a whole.

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