Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 1 February 2019

Poverty and education success: ‘The odds are against us’

It is becoming clear that mother tongue instruction alone is going to be of little help in improving learners’ performance in matric results because environmental factors, such as poverty, leadership and resources, play an increasingly large role.

Environmental factors

Various researchers have shown that underachievement in most cases has nothing to do with the learners’ intelligence. Environmental factors – things which are practically taken for granted in the Western way of thinking and in affluent schools – play an important role in fulfilling your intellectual abilities. This includes poverty, available resources, leadership, teachers’ work ethic as well as learners’ reading ability and academic skill in the language of instruction.

With favourable environmental factors people’s learning abilities increase, and in time they are better able to reach their true potential.

Mother tongue instruction

Research by, among others, Kathleen Heugh, Nic Webb and the late Neville Alexander (as well as my own research) has shown that there is a strong correlation between mother tongue instruction and academic success. But mother tongue instruction is not the only factor in academic success. As an example, I focus on the issue of Afrikaans instruction because it is my field of study.

Due to space constraints, I have analysed the matric results in only one district in the Western Cape according to three local newspapers. I chose the Cape Winelands because I taught here, and thus have a good idea of which schools are subject to poverty, and which are Afrikaans schools.

I identified all the Afrikaans schools of which the percentage passes were mentioned in the three newspapers. These are schools where the majority of learners are Afrikaans speaking and they are instructed in their mother tongue. A few of these schools also have an English class. Thereafter I divided the Afrikaans schools into two groups.

Poor schools (in quintile 1 and 2) achieved an average pass rate of 71% – thus eight percentage points poorer than the national pass rate, nearly 11% poorer than the provincial average and nearly 29% poorer than the Afrikaans schools in quintile 4 and 5 (former Model C schools), which averaged nearly 100%. If black schools, which all fall in the category quintile 1 and 2 (and thus are also considered subject to poverty), are included, the average pass rate percentage of poor schools was only 69%.

Another important result of poverty is related to the development of the academic language skill of learners. When learners from poor communities go to school for the first time, they are not equipped with the language skills required to master the work in the class – not even in their mother tongue. The Zoe reading project of the Foundation for Empowerment through Afrikaans (Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans or SBA) aims to make a difference in this regard.

The key question is thus: How is it possible that Afrikaans learners who take all their subjects in their mother tongue fare so much more poorly than the Afrikaans learners at the former Model C schools? The answer is probably related to poverty. The international Oxfam Inequality Report indicates that 55% of the citizens of our country now live in poverty and that the situation has deteriorated over the past five years.

Rural schools

The poverty is even more prominent in rural schools where most of the learners come from surrounding farms and are transported to school by bus. Let us have a look at the results of just four schools in the Cape Winelands which fall in this category: Skurweberg Secondary (average pass rate 63%) in the Koue Bokkeveld, Stellenzicht (64%) outside Stellenbosch, Kylemore Secondary (63%) outside Paarl and Waveren High School (62%) in Tulbagh.

Formerly I was the principal of one of these schools and have great empathy for the problems which the staff members face. The parents can barely afford the school fees or contribute anything when the school organises a bazaar, concert or sports matches. The children grow up in an environment without any resources or reading material which promote academic success. The result is an average pass rate of 63%.

Gang violence

At schools where there is a pattern of gang violence or learners are involved in gang activities, the average pass rate is even lower (62%). This leads to other obstacles like disciplinary problems, violent behaviour by learners as well as alcohol and drug abuse.

The principals and teachers do their level best, but as one of the principals often said: “The odds are against us.”

It is thus clear that mother tongue instruction alone will not really do much to improve learners’ performance – because, unless these environmental factors are addressed, the learners will never reach their true potential.

For this reason, I believe in the SBA bridge building project because it helps the child to make the leap from school to tertiary institutions.

What happens inside the classroom

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. Hexvallei Secondary, a school outside Worcester with a rural character, achieved 85%.

Similarly, two coloured schools in Paarl, namely Klein Nederburg Secondary (91%) and Noorder-Paarl Secondary (85%), performed exceptionally well. Klein Nederburg has over a long period built up a reputation as the top achieving school in the Boland coloured community. Parents have always been eager to enter their children here.

Noorder-Paarl used to be a top achiever but after 1994, when parents started sending their children to Model C schools, it started losing students. The Western Cape department of education then started to transport children from surrounding farms to the school. The school can thus today be described as a poor, rural school, which makes its achievements in 2018 even more remarkable.

Two black schools in Stellenbosch – Kayamandi High (81%) and Makupula Secondary (85%) which have more than a thousand learners each – have for some time been faring better than their Afrikaans peers despite the fact that the learners are schooled in their second language, English. Kayamandi is housed in a newer building, but Makupula’s achievement is remarkable if you keep in mind that they had to move into Kayamandi’s old school building. They have proven that attractive buildings are no guarantee of success. It is what happens inside the classroom that counts.

Then, even the lack of mother tongue instruction is not an insurmountable problem.

Good leadership

I suspect that the schools which are the exception to the rule are characterised by good leadership. These principals must not be “promoted” to the district office. We need them in the school. Pay them double if need be (as in some Model C schools). They have proven that environmental factors can be overcome through good leadership. And the result is a good work ethic among teachers.

Sounds like a recipe for success! DM

*In this article words like black, coloured and white were used to help explain certain aspects.

*The purpose of this article is not to denigrate schools which perform well. In fact, matrics and their teachers must be congratulated on their hard work and perseverance. We are proud of them!



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