It is a well known fact that South Africa’s maths and science results are somewhat dismal (and that’s being kind), but if we look at the factors that impact on these poor results, they’re really not that surprising. The majority of South African children are being taught complicated concepts in a language that they simply don’t understand. Trying to grasp the ideas of geometry and algebra are difficult enough when you’re a first language English speaker, but when children are being taught these concepts in a language that many of them can barely speak, it’s no surprise at all that the Annual National Assessments for 2014 put the average mark for Grade 9 mathematics at a dismal 11%. And on top of the impact that this has on the economic future of the youth in South Africa (and the country as a whole), there’s also the issue of social cohesion, and the difference understanding each other properly could make in that regard.
To address these issues the Department of Basic Education is looking at a two-pronged approach. The first mode of attack is to get pupils to study a language beyond English and Afrikaans, with schools offering a third (African) language, based on the language spoken by the majority of the learners in the school. This approach is in line with a project currently taking place in Europe known as ‘Mother Tongue + 2′, which involves children being taught two extra languages in school from a very young age.
The second and possibly more urgent change will be mother tongue-based teaching, learning and assessment. The results of this have already been shown in the Eastern Cape where a pilot project has now been running for more than four years. At one point the Eastern Cape was ahead of the curve in terms of its matric results, with children traveling from other provinces to be educated in the region, but over the years the province has fallen behind and is now the worst performing area in South Africa.
But with Xhosa being introduced as the primary language of instruction, things could slowly be turning around. In 2014 the Grade 6 pupils at Luzuko Junior Secondary scored 100% in maths in the Annual National Assessment, compared to a dismal 40% in 2012. The school does not have a library or science laboratory, and pupils still use pit latrines. Principal Nkosinathi Mvumbi said learners’ results had improved dramatically since being taught in Xhosa: “Previously, their results were really poor in those subjects because they were taught in English. Now we are getting marvellous results.”
And it’s not a matter of doing away with English, which undoubtedly is an essential tool for success in South Africa, and the rest of the world. The bilingual (or possibly trilingual) approach will still be implemented, but with a native language being used as a first language, instead of English.
If you think about, it just makes sense. And at a time in South Africa when there are so many questions hanging over the future of education, it seems like the first real step in the right direction.