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Cyril's grand school plan: Go hi-tech

2019-01-06 19:41

President Cyril Ramaphosa is set to announce a major overhaul of the country’s education system as government tries to prepare the future workforce for the fourth industrial revolution.

When Ramaphosa delivers the state of the nation address in the National Assembly next month, he will announce:

  • A universal roll-out of tablets for all pupils in the country’s 23 700 primary and secondary schools;
  • Computer coding and robotics classes for foundation-phase pupils from grades 1 to 3; and
  • The digitisation of the entire curriculum, including textbooks, workbooks and all teacher support material.

Other plans on the cards include the conversion of a significant number of schools to technical high schools and the introduction of a compulsory two years of pre-primary school for all South African children.

THE TECHNOLOGICAL LEAP

Ramaphosa’s announcement will follow this week’s matric pass rate of 78.2%, the second highest since 1994. Gauteng scored the highest with 87.9%, followed by the Free State (87.5%) and the Western Cape (81.5%). Limpopo obtained 69.4%, the lowest pass rate in the country.

The department of basic education’s director-general, Mathanzima Mweli, told City Press on Friday that the fourth industrial revolution was real and South Africa did not want to be left behind.

Mweli said that, while Ramaphosa would announce the finer details during his speech at the opening of Parliament, the department would start piloting the roll-out of tablets when schools reopened on Wednesday.

“This year we will pilot the roll-out of these gadgets in schools with special needs and in multigrade schools in rural areas. The intention is that, next year, we will cover all quintile one to quintile three [no-fee] schools, which cover about 70% of the entire system. We plan to finish off with quintiles four and five in 2021,” he said.

The national department, he said, had conducted a thorough assessment of problems faced by Gauteng and Western Cape provincial education departments, which introduced tablets and technologically driven learning in recent years.

“Our team did an assessment of the progress made. There were several challenges, including theft and the use of tablets for downloading non-education material such as pornography and games. We have worked out measures to mitigate the risks,” he said, adding that the measures included “insulating” the tablets against the downloading of any material that was not educational.

“The gadgets will be of no value to thieves, so the risk of theft will be low,” he said.

To help create jobs, Mweli said the department may decide to ensure that the company that won the tender manufactured the gadgets in South Africa.

While the debate on whether to switch from paper textbooks to tablets continues across the world, Mweli said technology offered many advantages.

“Over the years, we have struggled to make textbooks for all subjects available to all pupils in every grade. Tablets will provide 100% coverage. Digital content is also much cheaper. The content will also be interactive, which will make learning fun and exciting for all pupils,” he said.

About coding and robotics classes, Mweli said the department planned to begin implementing coding and robotics on a small scale from next year. The department is also in discussions with National Treasury and the presidency with a view to convert a significant number of academic schools to technical ones.

“You need serious money to do this. Technical schools are quite expensive because you need quite a lot of costly equipment,” he said.

Last year, in preparation for the conversion of academic schools to technical high schools, the department introduced subjects including technical mathematics, technical science, construction, digital systems, electronics, power systems, automotive, welding and metalwork, as well as fitting and machining.

Speaking to City Press on the sidelines of the release of the matric pass rate in Midrand on Thursday, Deputy Education Minister Enver Surty said: “We are going to be introducing robotics and coding in the foundation phase of the entire system so that our pupils become accustomed to the demands. Problem solving and innovative learning are skills that teachers will have to acquire to facilitate learning in a different environment. And those are realities that we have to recognise.”

Ramaphosa’s big announcement, Surty said, was about information technology.

“It is about the digitisation of the entire curriculum content with partnerships with some service providers. If you have your curriculum digitised, you require an instrument that will basically be able to download the curriculum. That process should occur incrementally,” he said.

“We are now looking at having two years of Grade R before [pupils get to] Grade 1, a recommendation put forward in the National Development Plan. We already have a plan available and are working with the department of social development and other partners to ensure it becomes a reality for the lives of our pupils.”

NATIONAL SENIOR CERTIFICATE COMES OF AGE

Quality assurance body Umalusi’s chairperson, professor John Volmink, said there was a desperate need to redesign the curriculum to address the economy’s future needs.

“We have to ask the question: Is what we are doing in school enough? The answer is no. There is a general recognition that we need more; we need a radical shift. There is a compelling reason children, from Grade 1 to Grade 12, need to be exposed to coding and robotics. We can’t be playing catch-up with the rest of the world; we need to leapfrog them,” he said.

Volmink said the 78.2% pass rate achieved by last year’s matric class was testament that the National Senior Certificate, which was introduced in 2008, was maturing.

“The interesting thing is that the National Senior Certificate is 10 years old. After 10 years of doing the same thing, five of which were under the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements, we have a better understanding of what needs to be done.

“The system is maturing, and pupil-teacher support has been stepped up. Teachers have become more confident,” he said.

Volmink was particularly pleased with a dramatic improvement in matriculants’ performance in maths and life sciences.

“This is enough evidence that the slight improvement we saw last year was genuine. Marks for maths and science were not adjusted. Our pupils responded well to cognitive demands. These subjects have given us sleepless nights over the past few years. It is easy to say we are going down as a country, but if you look at education outcomes, we are a nation on the rise. We are on the right track,” he said.

Mweli attributed matriculants’ success in provinces like the Free State, Gauteng and North West to hard work by the pupils themselves, as well as by parents, unions and governing bodies.

“In the Free State, they start with Saturday and Sunday classes as soon as school reopens in January. After the preliminary exams in September, kids don’t go home – they start camping at school and start revising. They study well into the night, bring mattresses and use vacant classrooms as bedrooms. Their mothers come and cook for them in the schools while their fathers provide security,” he said.

Gauteng, Mweli said, had 50 boot camps, many of which he visited, to support struggling pupils.

“They had different sessions for progressing, average and top pupils. Most of the camps start after the Easter holidays. Most of the gains happen during the winter and spring holidays, where pupils camp and study right through the holidays,” he said.

Nick Taylor, an education expert attached to the Research on Socioeconomic Policy at the University of Stellenbosch, said the matric pass rate on its own was not a good indicator of what was happening in the system.

“You need to consider the following: How many of the people who enrol in Grade 8 make it to matric? Indicators of the quality of the system include the number of pupils who pass English and maths with good grades, and the matric pass rate itself,” he said.

“The pass rate as it is can be manipulated, but politicians don’t want to listen.”

Statistics released by the DA this week show that, of the 1.06 million pupils who enrolled for Grade 10 in 2016, only 512 735 sat for matric exams last year and only 400 761 eventually passed.

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January 20 2019