Annual national assessments fail to address core issues

As in previous years, the Annual National Assessments (ANA’s), released earlier this week, have come under fire from various institutions for a number of reasons.  


Teachers’ unions have been the most vocal about their frustrations with the ANA’s. The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) argued that the assessments are designed to embarrass teachers rather than improving learning methods. They claim that an annual assessment does not give them ample time to make the necessary changes to improve the education system. Instead teachers are forced to move from one frantic preparation build-up to the next. The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA) also raised concerns about schools having to focus too much time getting ready for tests and not enough time on the curriculum.

The Centre for Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg has also lent its voice to the debate, saying that the papers were inconsistent and did not take pupil to teacher ratios into consideration. They also found in their study of the ANA’s that grade two learners are significantly disadvantaged as a result of inconsistent translations and the complexity of the questioning.

While these are all important arguments there is a deeper concern that needs to be addressed.

Cotlands strongly supports the idea of a national assessment that is designed to improve the standard of education in South Africa. However, it appears that the debating points arising from the ANA’s each year often miss an opportunity to address a larger crisis in South Africa — the lack of foundation phase learning.

Children who are not given a solid learning foundation lag behind their peers and fail to reach their full potential. This leads to learner frustration and to pupils dropping out well before they reach high school.  

Cotlands is a leader in the field of early learning amongst vulnerable children in South Africa and from our ongoing work in under-resourced communities we have encountered children as old as nine or 10 years of age who are unable to identify shapes or colours. Their lack of foundation phase learning leads to embarrassment and frustration when they are not able to cope at school. Many children internalise these emotions and assume they are incapable of learning, which persuades many of them to drop out. A report released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise in 2013 revealed that for every 100 pupils in Grade 1, only 52 make it to Grade 12.

Cotlands_Children_Learning‚ÄčAccording to Education White Paper Five on Early Childhood Development (ECD), about 40% of boys from under-resourced communities who attended pre-school successfully completed primary school, compared to 2% of boys who had not been involved in ECD programmes. This points to a significant correlation between early learning and finishing school.

Learning begins at birth. During the first two years of a child’s life the brain is most receptive to new information. Without the proper nutrition and a safe and stimulating environment, the brain’s development becomes stunted.

Early childhood researchers and scientists have found that at birth there are roughly 100 billion neurons already developed in a child’s brain. Through the child’s experiences, these neurons become hardwired and are responsible for all major cognitive and emotional functioning, including vision, language, emotions, and movements.

While the plasticity in the brain allows people to learn and develop throughout life, it is in the early years that most growth takes place, as it is in the years below six that a child is most susceptible to external influences.

On the foundation created in the first two years of life children are able to build pre-math and pre-literacy skills.

Early learning programmes that stimulate children between the ages of three and six enable them to keep those neuro-connections active. In this age range children have the desire and capacity to learn to read, write and count. Through play-based activities, they begin to differentiate between shapes and colours, to expand their vocabulary and to learn space and time ratios.  Children also develop a connection between letters and sounds through imaginative play, rhyming and word games.

Children who are given early learning opportunities display a marked improvement in their reading and writing abilities. These foundation phase skills put children who have access to early learning opportunities in a much better position to perform well academically.

Rhymes and songs may seem like “parrot fashion” learning, but children below the age of five associate letters with sounds which enable to them develop stronger reading and writing skills. This foundation phase learning is vital for success at later grade levels.  

Unfortunately, in their current format, the ANA’s do not accurately reflect the actual level of understanding in maths and literacy, because children prepare for the assessments using past papers, the same way matric pupils prepare for their final exams. This type of exam preparation defeats the purpose of assessing and diagnosing learner problems. Studying for the ANA’s only masks the deeper rooted issue which is that the majority of children – close to 70% according to the National Action Plan – enter formal schooling unprepared for the years ahead.

Irrespective any remedial work done in Grades One and Two, children who are not taught or given the opportunity to develop pre-math and pre-literacy skills, will consistently perform badly in comparison to their peers.

It is imperative that a tool that assesses the quality of education at schools take into consideration the extent of a child’s learning foundation, as this is a crucial component to the child’s ability to comprehend and answer complex questions. Only once all children start their education from a level playing field, will we be able to accurately assess curriculum delivery or children’s comprehension levels.