‘What exactly is education innovation?’ was a question posed to me by a senior education specialist who finds the term wishful, well intended and counter-productive, as there is very little verifiable evidence of its impact.
Center for Education Innovations website has now surpassed the milestone of profiling 100 education innovations located in South Africa. This coincides with the annual public conversation in South Africa about matric results and provides an ideal opportunity to craft a response to this question by showcasing the difference being made by a few of these profiled organizations which were the quickest to profile the 2014 matric pass rates of their beneficiaries.
LEAP Science and Maths Schools is one such example of an education innovation. LEAP is a chain of no-fee independent high schools offering high quality education to young, underprivileged South Africans living in high-need communities, providing the academic and life skills needed for them to become future leaders. In a circular released this week, the organisation noted that, ‘Despite a decline in the national matric pass rate from 78% to 75.8%, we are delighted to report that LEAP’s pass rate has increased from 87% in 2013 to 94.2% in 2014. There has also been a significant increase in the number of students achieving bachelor passes from 40% in 2013 to 56% in 2014.
South Africa has seen a drop in the math pass rate from 59% in 2013 to 53.5% in 2014; this is coupled with a decline in the number of students taking Mathematics from 241,509 in 2013 to 225,458 in 2014. LEAP, by contrast, has increased the numbers of students taking math by 38% in 2013 to 2014. While LEAP has seen a marginal decline in its math pass rate in 2014, at 80% this is still 26% above the national average. In Physical Science, a similar decline in the national pass rate from 67.4% in 2013 to 61.5% in 2014 can be seen (decrease of 5.9%). By contrast LEAP has improved its Physical Science pass rate from 75% in 2013 to 84.6% in 2014.
The characteristic that makes LEAP innovative lies in actively working against the steady decline in the number of full time matriculates who take math and science. They enroll students from severely disadvantaged areas and provide them with the motivation and support to persevere till they produce an above-average result in an important niche area for the country allowing them to pursue careers in engineering and science.
One of two interventions suggested by Campbell and Prew to address this problem in ‘Behind the Matric Results: The story of math and science’ is ‘…teachers in upper primary and lower secondary levels need further training both in teaching basic math and in how to identify learners who lack foundational mathematical skills. Our experience in teacher training has revealed that not enough attention is given to math content and pedagogy in pre-service primary school teacher training programs.’[i] This is a gap in the education system, which the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMSSEC) -also profiled on the CEI-SA database - is succeeding at addressing as in-service training amongst teachers.
IkamvaYouth is celebrating great matric results; once again township based youth, who have to become known as Ikamvanites, achieved results that far surpass the national averages. Their admission from nine branches across five provinces achieved an overall 82% pass rate, with 87% of those eligible for tertiary study (51% bachelor and 36% diploma). The organization has achieved these results while scaling its reach; the matric class of 2014 (244 learners) saw a 63% growth from 153 learners in 2013. Two branches celebrated excellent results from inaugural cohorts: Joza in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, achieved an 85% pass with 89% of those eligible for tertiary, and Ikageng in the North West achieved an 84% pass with 95% of those eligible for tertiary studies. According to Stellenbosch academic Nic Spaull, ‘Of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 48 made it to matric in 2014, 36 passed and 14 qualified to go to University’. IkamvaYouth addresses some of the key underlying issues that affect throughput. Extra tuition has historically been the staple accompaniment of schooling, but Ikamva’s innovative edge lies in pairing University graduates with learners from the same communities (who themselves were similarly tutored). The tutors (who exemplify the possibilities of success) understand the insecurities and difficulties encountered by learners and provide a consistent, high quality, low cost service achieved through a volunteer model.
The Beyers Naude School Development (BNSD) program was set up to establish good governance and management principles to establish the foundation for the long-term success of schools. The aim is to restore the culture of teaching and learning in schools, while simultaneously developing functional and sustainable relationships among key stakeholders within school communities. The 46 strong BNSDP classes of 2014 achieved an overall pass percentage of 85% with 33 schools achieving above 80% pass rate. Thabo Mofutsanyana School became the number one school in the district in the Free State and 9 BNSDP schools achieved a 100% matric pass rate. At the heart of the BNSDP is the quest for deepening the quality and confidence of educators in rural communities, as well as encouraging communities to participate in the management of schools. BNSDP is working to stimulate community agency and ownership of schools so that they become the responsibility of parents, community members, learners and educators alike. Acting on a citizen mandate to improve schooling and matric results in rural areas is likely to stimulate communities to think about what should happen next for matriculates too. This is good news in a country that needs to stop seeing the matric results in relation to University passes only. Kayin Scholz of South African Education Project notes that, ’Opportunities are often local and socially embedded [… ] real opportunities for most people don’t exist “over there” but amongst the people they know and the places they frequent.’ This view is echoed by Themba Mola, COO of Kagiso Trust which funds BNSD: “Further education and training (FET) colleges, for artisan and technical training, are less explored by learners and teachers, [...] those learners who do not get an opportunity to go to university should be aware of other careers available through FET” says Themba Mola, Kagiso Trust COO.
To return to our opening question: the projects described above are ‘education innovations’ because they address articulated problems within an education ecosystem in need of beacons. Granted, even taken as a composite comparison, these positive achievements reach small numbers and produce a modest effect - but education innovations in South Africa are by their very nature small in scale when they start out. And often remain so. Nevertheless, they urge us to showcase better strategies for tackling areas of intransigence within the education system and strengthen efforts to share the lessons of inventive projects.