Where political expediency trumps education

Posted on December 13, 2015


Schools around South Africa ended their 2015 academic year this week. And most learners went off on their holidays without having sat for the government’s demanded Annual National Assessment (ANA) tests.

Although basic education minister Angie Motshekga, in an apparent fit of pique, unilaterally ordered in September that all schools should apply the ANA in December, hardly any appear to have done so. And teachers, across the board, whether unionised or not, continue to decry this latest project by the department as a complete waste of time and money. They are right.

As this column pointed out nearly three months ago, the education department admitted that the ANA tests were “flawed”. The department agreed that they would be amended — the flaws ironed out — next year but, in the meantime, they should be administered.

The combined teacher unions pointed out that this made no sense: if the tests were flawed, they would be useless as diagnostic tools. So why make learners and teachers go through a process that is, essentially, meaningless?

The only vague response from the department was that the tests had “already been paid for”; that money should not be wasted. “Couldn’t agree more,” chorused increasngly angry teachers who noted that money splurged on flawed tests is wasted public money.

“And all we have seen over the past week has been public relations management,” says Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). He points out that, in many cases, government knowingly set dates for the ANA tests for grades when it was known that the grades had already completed the school year and were not available to write them.

In such cases, the tests, drawn up and paid for, were still made available, even if there was no way they could be administered. “What we have here is an apparent commitment to pay out for tenders,” says a senior union official.

Union leaders such as Basil Manuel of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa) point out that teacher unions were involved three months ago in trying to discuss a sensible resolution to the ANA problem. All five unions were involved, along with the minister and her department in a process mediated by leading lawyer, Charles Nupen.

Speaking for the unions, Manuel says: “We were not opposed to testing as such, but wanted a proper diagnostic process, and we thought we were making progress. But then the minister simply sent a message to Charles Nupen saying the tests were going ahead.” It was Nupen who had to inform the unions.

So why should the minister be so determined to go ahead with these tests when it was obvious they are not only flawed, but where the results can be manipulated? The unions point out that one obvious reason is to establish “league tables” showing which schools are supposedly providing the “best quality education”. Also how, as test scores improve, the system is supposed to be working.

Teachers are therefore under pressure to ensure the best possible marks,. And they do so in an environment where it is easy to inflate marks, either by preparing learners in advance, by rewriting the tests or by simply “fiddling the figures”.

As a result, the teacher unions unanimously rejected ANA in its present form. They also pointed out repeatedly that the tests are not of much use as a diagnostic tool.

The education department must surely be aware of this. So why persist with the tests and the myth that they somehow constitute a real measure of the state of learning and an accurate diagnosis of problems?

The reason seems to be that political expediency trumps educational principle. At a time when the governing party is losing support and with local government elections looming, the ANC needs to burnish its image.

How better to do so on the educational front, where government faces severe criticism, than by providing an illusion of improved school performance? That seems to be the real — and cynical — role of ANA.