The Annual National Assessments (ANAs) have been disrupted (or is it, delayed?) again. While almost everyone seems to agree the current system of standardised testing is flawed, that the key players in education still cannot get along is a worrying sign.
Before the ANAs were to begin on Thursday, both the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and unions remained defiant. It was one of those moments when a conversation escalates faster and further than you expected, and when it does you are not quite sure why or how you got here, or what “here” even means.
“The DBE is once again proving itself to be insensitive to the needs of both the learners and the teachers. The decision to insist on writing the ANA during the period 26 November to 4 December is further proof that the DBE has lost touch with the realities that prevail at school level at this time of the year,” said the five unions: The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (Saou), the National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), the National Teachers Union (Natu), and the Professional Educators Union (PEU) on Wednesday.
They went further, suggesting the DBE was committed to spending over R200 million on the ANAs, that those in charge of basic education are in the pocket of businesses who won tenders to administer the tests. The department was clear: students will write. It issued a circular to schools telling them to go ahead with the ANAs between Thursday and 4 December. “These assessments are an important diagnostic tool used to identify and remediate challenges in the sector. We have agreed with teacher unions that there is a need to reform the current model of the assessments and have invited teacher unions to work with the department to make recommendations based on their experiences in this regard,” said a statement from DBE spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga.
The statement refuted claims that negotiations with unions, which included over 31 meetings through a mediator, failed because Minister Angie Motshekga turned her back on the process. It said Motshekga was ready to sign a draft agreement that would have only seen 2,100 schools write the standardised tests, but the DBE refused to agree to a new clause insisting this year’s ANAs be voluntary. According to the DBE, the voluntary clause amounted to “such a fundamental difference that it collapsed the draft agreement”.
Months after the parties entered into discussions over the ANAs, years after unions have voiced their anger, after at least 31 meetings over a few months, it is unclear how we got here. While schools have until next Friday to write the tests, which test literacy and numeracy skills for key grades, only some schools reportedly wrote them on Thursday.
Of course it is not the first time unions and the department have disagreed. The country’s largest education union, Sadtu, is often blamed in general terms for accepting teachers’ poor skills while defending its members interests at the cost of learner education. Remember the union’s go-slow in 2013, and threats to strike in 2014 over pay, and complaints against Motshekga and then-director-general Bobby Soobrayan? Then there was the outrage over plans to log teachers in and out of school through a biometric fingerprint system.
In any argument that escalates too far, what is important, however, is what we’re not talking about. ANAs are important, but not that important. President Jacob Zuma and Minister Motshekga have hyped them up because they are an easy measure of improvement. Standardised testing is used to know where students, schools and the system are, in terms of basic progress, and hopefully help them improve. But almost everyone, including the DBE, accepts there are flaws in the current ANA system Unions, civil society groups and academics have questioned the tests on their accuracy, remedial value, and whether they distract from learning the core curriculum, as teachers and schools under pressure coach students to perform their best in the ANAs, fearing reprisals from provincial education leaders.
Meanwhile, the basic education system is in disarray. The data is years old, but in an article this year asking whether 80% of South African schools are dysfunctional, Africa Check said, “Results from international, standardised tests show that between 75% and 80% of South African schools are not able to impart the necessary skills to students. Grade 6 students in the poorest 75% of schools performed significantly worse in literacy and numeracy than grade 6 students in the wealthiest 25% of schools. The trend is similar for grade 9 students, where students in the poorest 80% of schools achieved substantially lower results in maths and science compared to students in the wealthiest 20% of schools.”
It might be ironic that the figures come from standardised tests, but if we accept that the basic education system has serious flaws, despite the improvements the DBE has said it has recorded, it also needs serious interventions. The most important players in those interventions will be teachers, who are represented by unions, and government. If a show of strength, from both sides, prevent a resolution on the ANAs, of all things, what hope is there of sorting out fundamental problems crucial to the education system and the future of current students? DM
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Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.
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