This is a pilot project to test different learner backlogs implementation modalities in the Senior Phase in rural and urban contexts, with a view to improve understanding and build a knowledge base of what works to address backlogs.
Name of Project/Intervention: Senior Phase Mathematics Backlogs Pilot Project
Duration of Project: 2020-2021
Geographical area of the project: Gauteng and Eastern Cape
Implementing partners: OLICO Maths Education and Wits Maths Connect Secondary Project (Gauteng); Maths & Science Infinity and Bulungula Incubator (Eastern Cape)
Various research studies have provided evidence that learners face backlogs in Mathematics in Grade 8 and 9 (Senior Phase). These backlogs are cumulative from early grades and become pervasive by the time learners reach high school. By Grade 9, learners in lower quintile schools have learning and content knowledge backlogs of approximately 3.5 years relative to their high quintile school counterparts. This learning gap is projected to widen to 4 years by Grade 12. In spite of these realities, the Senior Phase is characterised by low levels of investment from both government and donors, as such, there is limited knowledge base about what works and doesn’t in a programme meant to address learner academic backlogs, and in what context it works. The few programmes targeting Senior Phase in the public schooling system are not conceptualised and designed as backlogs programmes.
As such, the Zenex Foundation will test two Mathematics pilots over two years in both urban and rural/peri-urban contexts in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng. The pilots will specifically target backlogs in Mathematics in the Senior Phase.
The objective of the pilots is to test different learner backlogs implementation modalities in rural and urban contexts, with a view to improve understanding and build a knowledge base of what works to address backlogs. The pilots are designed to build the core mathematical skills necessary for proficiency and build on this success for more complex high school Mathematics. While the pilots are aimed at bridging the backlogs, they will also provide curriculum support for current grade level content to build the confidence of learners to choose Mathematics in the Further Education and Training (FET) Phase.
Details of the intervention
One pilot will support learners in rural/urban contexts, and the other will be teacher-focused. Learners in rural and urban contexts face different challenges (e.g. distances to school, technological infrastructure) as such the intervention will be tested in both contexts to fully understand the impact context has on learner performance.
The learner-focused pilot will be a technology-based, after school programme. Extra-curricular/after school programme is necessary, given the pervasive learner backlogs and the dense curriculum for the Senior Phase. Technology has been identified as a possible platform for addressing backlogs, and therefore there is a need to test this in different contexts.
Dealing with learner backlogs in Mathematics is an enormous challenge even for teachers with strong mathematical and pedagogical knowledge. The teacher-focused pilot will incorporate teacher professional development and training, as well as in-class support by way of coaching and co-teaching to address both the content and pedagogical knowledge of teachers and equip them with skills to diagnose and address backlogs. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) will be set up to build a community of teachers that will outlive the lifespan of the project and extend beyond the confines of individual schools. PLCs, according to research at Wits University, contribute to creating a professional culture and identity amongst the teachers for ongoing learning and sharing.
The Senior Phase demands high cognitive competencies for the learners and provides the foundation for good performance at the end of high school. This phase represents the best opportunity to address backlogs and to ‘get the basics right’ before the change into more cognitively demanding content (symbolic reasoning and analytical thinking) in the FET Phase. As such, lessons drawn from the pilots will make an extensive contribution to improving overall performance at National Senior Certificate level.
 Eldridge Moses, Servaas van der Berg and Kate Rich: A society divided – how unequal education quality limits social mobility in SA, 2017.