Education Watch

Power struggles and politics dominate inevitable ANA debate

Angie Motshekga
Motshekga.jpg

The raging controversy and the battle over the Annual National Assessment tests (ANAs) in South African schools have been brewing for a long time and are unlikely to be settled any time soon.

At present the, at times highly emotional, battle presents itself predominantly as a power struggle between Department of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and provincial departments on one side and the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and other teachers unions on the other side.

And, to complicate matters further, the quality of education in the country’s primary schools is not always the top concern. In some ways the ‘Battle of the ANAs’ has become a proxy for factional battles inside the governing African National Congress.

For the sake of perspective, however, it is important to note that what is happening around the ANAs is not unique to South Africa. Details differ from country to country, but similar robust debates about education assessment tests play themselves out around the globe. Controversy is seldom far behind.

In Australia, for example, where there has been a recent change of government, a report last week concluded about the selective implementation of only four of thirty recommendations of a National Curriculum Review: “So not much innovation there, just a bit of smoke and mirrors.”

Nothing new

These assessment tests – some at national, others at state level, depending on a country’s governance structure – have been around for some time in an effort to keep up with the education needs of an ever-changing world.

In a 2009 report by the World Bank, two years before Motshekga introduced the ANAs to SA, it is stated that: “Measuring student learning outcomes is increasingly recognized as necessary, not only for monitoring a school system’s success but also for improving education quality.”

That developments around the ANAs in South Africa panned out the way they did, should not have come as a surprise to local stakeholders against the background of the following statement in that report:

“The social actors with the ability to influence the nature of an assessment – and the ways findings are used – are many. How power politics actually play out in a country will depend on a number of factors, such as the following:

  • The extent to which decisions regarding educational provision (for example, financing, curricula) are the function of central or decentralized governance;
  • The existence and strength of informal institutions, networks, and special interest groups, both within and outside government;
  • The strength of teachers’ unions, which can play a key role in policy implementation, if not in policy formation; and
  • The role of external (multilateral and bilateral) agencies in sensitizing administrations to address conditions in their education system and in providing or supporting development of the capacity to deal with them.”

There also seems to be support in the report for the complaint by the South African teachers unions that the results of the ANAs are being wrongly used as a tool to hold teachers accountable and “name and shame” schools. Instead it should primarily be a diagnostic tool to improve curriculum content, accompanied by teacher development.

In this regard the report states: “To use data on the outcomes of education as the sole basis of accountability, however, is to lose sight of the fact that aspects of provision (for example, school buildings, curricula, educational materials, teachers’ instructional techniques, and preparation activities) are also relevant in assessing quality.”

Domestic warnings

Signs that a storm around the ANAs is brewing, have also been around for some time.

In April of this year Dr Caroline Long, of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, in an article under the heading ‘Beware the tyrannies of the ANAs’ wrote: “The provision of ‘good education’, however, should not be undermined by the tyranny of numbers. Neither should good practice be obscured under a mountain of test papers.”

In June Dr Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University, in a presentation at a seminar of the Wits School of Education, warned that there currently is “an independence issue given that the ANAs are written, marked and reported on by the DBE, who also uses these for political purposes (claims of improvements).”

He also cites anecdotal evidence of “cheating” by teachers under pressure to ensure improved results.

Long also wrote: “A way to improve mathematical and literacy competence is to support the teachers’ professional practice with well-designed assessment resources, reviewed and revised in consultation with teachers, so as to permit intermittent signals of progress within a grade year.”

Conclusion

It is clear that after having been used for four years now, the time has come for a proper and multi-disciplined assessment of the ANAs, with a view to improving them and broadening the positive influence they can and should have on South Africa’s below-par educational system.

Instead of getting involved in a power struggle with unions by insisting that the ANAs should be added on top of the end of year exams in December, Minister Motshekga should rather concentrate on ensuring the best possible results from the task team already agreed upon.

The best interest of learners now calls for teamwork based on all-inclusive consultation and input, free of petty political considerations. In fact, that should be an ongoing process in an ever-changing social environment.

by Piet Coetzer

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