Reclaiming the top spot
Debbie Schäfer, Western Cape’s MEC of education, says the quality of measures she introduced will propel her department back to its place as a “torch-bearer” in the country
The 2017 academic year will be critical for the Western Cape department of education (WCED) for a number of reasons. Firstly, the province would like to regain its reputation of being the number one province when it comes to matric pass rate. Despite increasing the 2016 matric pass rate to 86% from 84.7% the previous year — an increase of 1.3% — it was pipped by the Free State, which obtained a 93.2% pass rate (excluding progressed learners).
Over and above that, the province believes that it will be able to achieve some of the goals it has set itself to improve its overall performance in the entire education system.
Opening new horizons
Looking at the matric result of 2016, MEC for education Debbie Schäfer said there were far more positives than negatives. She said competition between provinces is healthy and often galvanises teachers and learners in each province to work harder. “I am extremely happy that the Western Cape has increased its pass rate, while successfully retaining the highest percentage in the country of learners within the system.
“We have always maintained that indicators of quality go well beyond the overall pass rate. This year 40.9% of candidates achieved bachelor’s passes, the highest in the country. The class of 2016 also had a record-breaking pass rate of 77.2% in mathematics, and 73.8% in physical science,” she said.
On the right track
Schäfer said she was further heartened that the pass rate in schools that serve poor communities is up from the previous year which, she says, is the clearest sign that the province is on the right track.
“I acknowledge that there is still much to be done to improve education in this province, especially [regarding] the inequalities that still exist. We will continue to look at ways of improving education in the province, as we want to see more learners achieving their National Senior Certificate (NSC) and accessing higher education,” she said.
But she added that education is more than merely tallying matric results every year. She said educational officials, teachers and parents put a lot of effort into preparing learners for their final year.
The provincial goal
The MEC said the hard work done by the learners is often overlooked, and that she has learnt a lot since being elevated to head the education portfolio by Western Cape premier Helen Zille. Schäfer has introduced a number of initiatives that saw the WCED improve over the past few years.
“I have been involved with the development of the Provincial Strategic Plan, which comprises five Provincial Strategic Goals. The second goal — improving education outcomes and opportunities for youth development — involves transversal co-operation between a number of departments, including the WCED and the departments of social development, cultural affairs and sport.
“It is the Provincial Goal that is responsible for two of the eight game-changers, namely that of e-Learning and afterschool care, otherwise known as Youth with Hope. It also includes a ‘Living Lab’, which aims to provide structured and focused support for improved learning in the Foundation Phase,” she said.
New thinking in maths and language
Schäfer said the first thing she did was to review the Language and Mathematics Strategy.
“The importance of the development of language and mathematics skills at an early age cannot be over-emphasised. If a learner does not master these skills appropriate to their age and grade, they will be left behind in their later years, ultimately resulting in poor quality results and higher dropout rates.
“Therefore, improving language and mathematics in all schools will ultimately result in an increase in the number and quality of passes in the NSC, and undoubtedly a higher retention rate,” said Schäfer.
The Western Cape is one of many provinces that had thousands of learners without a school. When public schools across the country opened for the 2017 academic year, there were 18 000 learners who had no access to schools. Schafer said department officials found that some of these learners had applied for a place in more than one school. She said her officials had managed to place more than 10 000 learners since the start of the academic year.
“Our officials have managed to achieve this by identifying learners that are ‘double-parked’ and by working closely with schools to identify every available place,” said Schäfer. She said her department is providing assistance in the form of mobile schools to those schools that are struggling to cope with the higher number of learners.
Focus on poor schools in crime infested areas
Schäfer said her department would redouble its efforts in poor, township and rural schools and in crime-infested areas such as the Cape Flats. These areas often find it hard to attract highly trained and competent educators, who often make a vital difference in the subjects that they teach, especially in maths and sciences. She said a further indication of the government’s relentless effort at raising the bar in these schools is the reduction of the number of underperforming schools from 27 in 2015 to 19 in 2016.
One such school is New Eisleben Secondary School in Crossroads, in the Metro South Education District, which she visited recently. “The school increased their matric pass rate by 21% from 47.1% in 2015 to 68.1% in 2016. This is a remarkable achievement given that the school also saw an increase in numbers from 136 in 2014 to 216 last year.
“Also, 12 out of 16 schools in Mitchells Plain saw an increase in their pass rate in 2016. In 2015 Mitchells Plain schools achieved an average pass rate of 83.9%, and in 2016 they have increased that to 86.4%. This is 10% more than their 2014 performance, and is truly heartening. For this sustained improvement they must be congratulated.”