Making Maths Make Sense

Article in the Daily Maverick on SA’s education revolution – who wants in?

This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick on 29 January 2015, by Oresti Patricios.DSCN3617

South Africa’s education system is broken. We all need to do what we can to try and fix it. One class at a time. One child at a time. One school at a time.

When the World Economic Forum (WEF) published its 2014 Global Information Technology Report, South Africa’s education system was lambasted. This report indicates how able a country is to apply technology for its betterment – in other words, its ability to harness information and communications technologies for economic growth, productivity and job creation.

The report rated 148 states, and South Africa’s education system was ranked 146th out of the 148. This country’s maths and science were the worst of all surveyed, according to the WEF report. In another report by the same organisation – The WEF Global Competitiveness Report – SA did just as badly. The quality of SA’s education system was ranked at 140 out of the 144 states surveyed.

The reasons for the problems are complex and manifold. They lie somewhere in between SA’s inherited Apartheid schools systems, which sees a Model C school in an affluent area like Sandton, much better resourced and equipped than a school across the highway in the township of Alexandra. Then there’s the issue of corruption, infrastructure problems, textbook shortages, the controversial 30% matric pass requirement, teachers going on strike, and the fact that some schools don’t even have basic facilities like toilets or water.

Political affiliation is irrelevant. How you feel about SA’s current ruling party or government is not of consequence here. What’s vital is that the education system, that a democratic SA inherited, is hopelessly flawed. It may take decades to remedy.

Just how important is education to SA’s economic growth, social development and very future? Empirical research repeatedly bears out that education is the single biggest contributor to economic growth and social development. Further, the World Bank advises that education is the only real and lasting solution to reversing inequality in SA.

It goes without saying that without good education, we won’t have a decent workforce, intelligent leaders, qualified professionals or competent civil servants in the future.

So what’s to be done? I would like to propose a show of force by business. I’m not talking about taking our government to the Constitutional Court (let’s leave that to civic organisations who are already doing an excellent job here). Rather, what about a complementary solution that may affect fundamental and long lasting change? I’m talking about a learning revolution.

The learning revolution I speak of is understanding that government is not going to save the education system. We need to rescue education ourselves.

It doesn’t matter how big or small your business is – you have the power to do something that will change lives and improve the future of the country. The infrastructure for this aid is largely established and there are many organisations that can help you get involved.

The organisation I work with is called PfP, which stands for Partners for Possibility. Essentially this non-profit teams up business leaders with headmasters, and through a program of training and coaching, enables them to work together to overcome the challenges faced by that headmaster’s school. It’s not about finding sponsors with deep pockets, so much as enabling the headmaster to progress in his own right.

My own experience working with a primary school in Alexandra has forever changed me. I feel I have become a better human being through my experience with the remarkable headmaster who runs this school. My intervention at the school has been wisely guided by him – he knows best how the system works and what’s best for his learners.

At the beginning of the year we worked together to set certain goals for the school, first among which was learning outcomes. In 2012, from Grade 1 through to Grade 6, in Maths, isiZulu, English and seSotho, the average results were a failing grade, in the region of 16% to 40%. By 2013, all had improved, some by over 20%.

There were six learners in Grade 6, moving to Grade 7 in 2015, who achieved over 80% in English and Maths. They have received full bursaries to go to St Mary’s and St David’s until Grade 12. This year’s results may be even better. We are holding thumbs.

One of the major challenges was communication: teachers complained that printed notices weren’t getting to the parents. We investigated alternatives, and found that all parents had cellphones – many even had smartphones. So we instituted the SMSWeb system that takes advantage of free services like BBM, Mxit, e-mail and Skype to communicate with parents.

Other goals this headmaster achieved included improved attendance at Saturday classes, obtaining sponsorship from Anglo American for the creation of a computer lab, overhead projectors and TV sets, and sponsorship from other companies for a CCTV system.

What did it cost me? Not much. A little time mostly, which forced me to schedule my life better; but the excitement and motivation I received from being part of this was priceless.

PfP has been awarded a contract by the GDE (Gauteng Department of Education) to support 66 school principals from township schools. Part of the drive is to recruit professionals in IT, HR and Finance to assist with administration in these schools – a task that often lands on the shoulders of the headmaster. The GDE is allocating R30,000 to each of the principals, but there are still citizen partners needed for some of the schools.


Olico is another organisation that makes a huge difference in the field of education. This non-profit runs several education initiatives, including a computer lab in the Diepsloot community centre. Here, children can enrol for after-school programs that target their maths; the computer lab has software that tracks each learner’s progress, and initially the lessons were provided by the Khan Academy – a comprehensive set of YouTube instructional videos on most aspects of primary and high school maths. Olico has subsequently produced a number of videos along the same lines, to fit in better with the South African curriculum.

The video lessons are short and easy to follow, and this year learners showed an amazing 47% average increase in their maths marks. Imagine if we could build something similar in every under-serviced area. Olico has made the blueprint – their materials are all open-source, so no-one has to reinvent the wheel. Admittedly, it will take some money and manpower. Who is up to the challenge? DM


Oresti Patricios (@orestaki) is CEO of Ornico, a Brand Intelligence® firm that focuses on media, reputation and brand research. Follow Ornico on Twitter: @OrnicoMedia

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