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Addressing cumulative learning backlogs is the key to improving the country’s grade 12 results



There is increasing awareness that resources and energy need to be focused on the early years of children’s lives to help them to reach matric, pass key subjects well, access post-school learning opportunities and succeed in the world of work. But many learners in later phases of schooling need support as they lack basic curriculum knowledge and have consequently developed cognitive backlogs, a gap that must be addressed if they are to succeed.


The release of the national senior certificate results last month saw Minister Angie Motshekga and the Department of Basic Education celebrating an all-time high matric pass rate of 81.3%. At the 2020 Basic Education Sector Lekgotla, President Cyril Ramaphosa commented: “It is significant that our matric pass rate has breached the 80% threshold for the very first time since the advent of democracy.”

We should celebrate and feel justifiably proud of not only an improving pass rate but also the access to education that has been achieved by the education system since 1994. But we should also be concerned by some key and persistent trends evident in our country’s education performance that will catastrophically affect its future development if not curbed. These trends include the poor retention of learners in the system (which means that a worrying number of young people leave the school system before matric), the low enrolment numbers and participation of learners in maths and physical sciences (key subjects for economic development), as well as the declining quality of passes in these crucial subjects.

Statistics have been argued over since the release of the matric results, and the health of the educa­tion system has been hotly debated. There have been calls for the depart­ment to focus less on the pass rate, and instead to commit to reporting on metrics that describe retention, participation, and quality. In a recent article on the Daily Maverick web­site, Nicky Roberts makes a cogent argument for the need to “shift teach­ers, learners and parents away from ‘I passed/ I failed’, towards: How well have I done in my matric? It would help national, provincial officials to focus solely on quality.” Increasing the quality of the education system, and not just the matric pass rate, is required if we are, as the president urged at the lekgotla, to achieve our collective task as a nation and “move South Africa to the next frontier of economic development”.

Learning backlogs

  • Addressing cumulative learn­ing backlogs is crucial if we are to achieve educational quality in South Africa. What, though, are learning backlogs and why do they develop?

Educational research studies provide compelling evidence that learners’ conceptual and procedural knowledge gaps develop cumula­tively and that many teachers also have knowledge gaps themselves. Many learners develop these back­logs in key subjects by grades 8 and 9, and this inhibits their academic development. The backlogs prevent them from achieving quality passes in key subjects.

The backlogs start in the early grades and become pervasive by the time learners reach high school — and it is not possible for learners to achieve significant performance gains without addressing them. In particular, in subjects such as maths and physical sciences, where learn­ing is cumulative, learners cannot gain access to new and more com­plex curriculum knowledge without foundational knowledge being in place.

A structural issue in the education system exacerbates the problem. Research depicts clearly that, owing to the department’s policy on learner progression, learners are routinely promoted from one grade to the next without having mastered the content and foundational competencies of preceding grades, resulting in large cognitive backlogs that progressively inhibit the acquisition of more com­plex competencies.

The effect of learning backlogs is not only that learner performance in key subjects declines, but also that fewer numbers of learners choose these subjects in grade 10, a trend encouraged by a system that values pass rates so highly.

There is an urgent requirement to assist those learners currently in the system to overcome these defi­cits and to achieve quality passes at grade 12 that will allow them to access meaningful post-school learn­ing opportunities and so enhance their chances of contributing mean­ingfully in the labour market. There is also a need to reduce the number of learners who drop out of the sys­tem when their backlogs of knowl­edge become insurmountable.
What is the best way to support those learners who need better passes as well as access to post-school path­ways and opportunities in the world of work?

Six key solutions from research and practice are:

Six key solutions

  • Supplementary programmes that offer extra time on the curriculum content and concept deficits are critical to improving the quality of passes of learners in the system. These, however, must be delivered in a holistic and supportive way.
  • English proficiency is vital for success in maths and science. Therefore, reading is a crucial compo­nent of any support programme.
  • The psychosocial and emotional support of learners is necessary because many learners face difficult times in their families.
  • Grit and resilience should be developed in learners, who must be able to solve problems and be self-directed.
  • Post-school access must be sup­ported and driven as part of the net­work of support for learners, espe­cially those who have little access to social capital.
  • Finally, but crucially, parallel to working with learners is the need to work with teachers, because the quality of an education system can­not exceed the quality of its teachers.Improved matric passes are one measure of the health of our edu­cation system, but we need also to measure quality, retention and participation and, importantly, the extent to which young people are accessing the world of work and con­tributing meaningfully to our coun­try’s economy and future. If we are to ensure that young people achieve a quality education, it’s vital that we help them overcome the backlogs that will trip them up and prevent them from participating in the build­ing of our nation’s future.


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