Education in Dire Need of Reform
In early December each year, like colonies of ants or armies of recruits, about 35 000 markers diligently assemble in 127 marking centres nationally to assess 6 200 000 scripts written by 620 000 Grade 12 pupils in what are known colloquially as the matric exams (short for the earlier qualification administered by what was then known as the Joint Matriculation Board).
There are many critical steps in what is a complex national examination process, but marking is probably the most important: it is an act of assessing of how well the high school pupil has acquired the knowledge necessary to master the discipline of study. It is an act that measures their ability and defines their chances in life. Markers have the huge responsibility of holding a young person's future in trust.
There are a number of reasons why many of us in and outside the government are greatly concerned about how well markers do their job.
First, although there are filtering procedures to assess marker competence (mathematics teachers, for example, are usually expected to mark maths scripts), for the first time early this year, Western Cape markers sat for a knowledge test.
As a result, the public can be confident that Western Cape markers know their subject well enough to assess competently pupils who wrote matric exams in this province. We cannot say the same for the rest of our country. Sensibly, therefore, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga intends to introduce competency tests nationally next year.
Second, the materials that markers have at their disposal to guide assessment often leave much to be desired.
Take the life sciences, for example. The syllabus is long and complex. The marking memorandum, based on the curriculum, is a measurably and demonstrably inadequate guide and gets six out of 10 in my estimation. A smart marker will do a good job. The average memo-bound marker will not.
Black African pupils struggle in mastering the science vocabulary because, through no fault of theirs, neither English nor Afrikaans is their first language. It is also true that there are few black life sciences markers who are sensitive to the idiomatic difficulties black children have, posing a critical challenge that has to be properly solved.
Third, the more marking centres there are the more problems there must be with supervision and management. The 127 marking centres are unevenly distributed across nine provinces.
Mpumalanga, for example, has 17 marking centres and the Western Cape only one - and for a similar number of pupils.
The Department of Basic Education and the standards-setting body, Umalusi, have consistently identified inadequately supervised marking centres in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape as one of the most significant risk factors. Intoxicated markers slip in undetected. Lax supervision is heaven for slackers. And there is worse.
Fourth, the SA Democratic Trade Union (Sadtu) is notorious for abusing the marking regime to create opportunities for its members to earn easy pocket money. The matric examinations process provides opportunities for additional income - at a time of year and in poor provinces where households are under pressure.
It is a perverse incentive for attracting scoundrels who profit at the cost of properly assessing our children's potential. It was Sadtu who protested when the Western Cape Education Department introduced competency tests. It was Sadtu who rejected competency tests "in their current form" for teachers.
Sadtu is the enemy of quality and one of the major reasons why mediocrity triumphs in education.
It follows that to set right the marking process requires (1) the rigorous screening and testing of markers; (2) the writing of more sophisticated marking memorandums and training more Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Tswa-Ronga and Venda first language-speaking markers especially for the sciences and mathematics; (3) reducing, rationalising and introducing proper management systems at the marking centres; and (4) decisively pushing back Sadtu or other trade unions that have diminished their role in education to become unprincipled employment agencies for their members. …