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Overcoming the odds: ways of improving learner performance

The recent Principals Upfront seminar, titled Educational Journey to Matric: A Data Analysis of the 2016 Matric Results, explored trends in the matric results as well as learning gaps that affect learner performance.

Panellist Mrs Elizabeth Masemola, principal of Zonkizizwe Senior Secondary School, Katlehong, offered a thought-provoking analysis of the key factors that in her experience contribute to learning deficits, and described what she and her school community are doing to alleviate their effects.

The community that Zonkizizwe Senior Secondary School serves faces high unemployment and a range of severe socio-economic challenges. Despite these difficult conditions, the school has shown tremendous academic growth under Mrs Masemola’s leadership, rising from the 32% pass rate of its first matric class in 2009 to an impressive 86.7% in 2016, with 25% of its learners achieving bachelor passes.

Mrs Masemola makes the point that any assessment of learning gaps should take into account the background and circumstances of the learners: “We need to look over and above learning capabilities at how social and economic issues in the community contribute to suppressing the abilities of our learners.”

One of these societal issues is a lack of parental involvement in education. In the community the school serves, parents tend to hand over responsibility to the school, with the expectation that the school will provide care and uniforms, and ensure that learners pass.  To counter this, the school encourages parents and guardians to become more engaged, and to contribute in kind.

In addition, learners tend to see themselves as passive recipients of a service, expecting ‘education’ to be provided without effort on their part. Mrs Masemola contends that this passivity results from the way schools communicate with learners. “Schools have to change the language, to encourage learners to use their effort and to put in something of their own, in order to achieve more than they have,” says Mrs Masemola.

Zonkizizwe has implemented an effective solution that motivates learners, encourages them to take more responsibility for their learning, and provides useful feedback to teachers. As Mrs Masemola explains, “We start the year by making learners aware of where they are and where they want to be, and enter into performance contracts with them. They decide what they want to achieve, set targets and commit to improvements. We also give them assessment dates and information for the different learning areas, so that they can prepare towards assessment.  At the end of each term we review the targets, looking at what went wrong if they were not achieved, and what can be done to get back on track. We also reach out to parents and guardians to involve them in supporting the learners to reach their goals.”

“To improve the quality of teaching and learning, let’s involve the learners, let them be part of what they want to learn, and encourage them to own it. Let’s find out from them if we are doing the right things. If we are to improve, what is it that we must do?

Don’t be afraid to be criticised – just take the comments, work out what has been negative in your teaching and make it positive, and move forward with your learners.” Mrs Masemola

Another of the school’s strategies to improve learner performance is to maintain the higher GET pass requirements throughout the FET phase.  This accustoms learners to a higher standard, which means that achieving bachelor passes is less of a stretch.

In Mrs Masemola’s view, some barriers to performance lie within the requirements of the system itself. Referring to the promotion requirements, Mrs Masemola asks whether South Africa currently has the capacity and the culture to make maths, or maths literacy, compulsory.  Problems in the teaching and learning of maths can already be seen at primary level. Not everyone has the capacity to deal with maths and it is important to acknowledge children’s strengths in other areas.  “We understand that it is not possible for all learners to do well in maths and science, so we look for other fields where they will be better suited, and encourage them to do well in the social sciences,” explains Mrs Masemola.

Language is another area that calls for a creative approach. Language has a significant impact on performance, especially in urban areas, and English, as the language of teaching and learning, continues to be a major challenge. Despite this, Mrs Masemola views language as “a barrier but not an obstacle”. As a temporary solution, multilingual schools can relieve the effects of language as a barrier by teaching in whatever language or combination of languages reaches the learners, and by using the learners’ home language as their First Language.

To avoid discrimination between learners in terms of affordability, the school has established links with a number of partners who assist with support and resources. These include government (the DBE’s provision of meals and the DSD’s provision of uniforms), organisations and individuals providing academic and social support, as well as business and industry. “Our partners have helped a great deal to improve the quality of the education we provide and our learners’ quality of life,” notes Mrs Masemola.