Outliers part two: The story of the Centre for Science and Technology
Helen Zille, Leader of the Democratic Alliance
30 January 2012
A year ago, I wrote about two young men, Asavela Rawe and Monde Simbosini, who both lived in back-yard shacks in a poverty-stricken community, and who had defied the odds by achieving outstanding matric results including over 95% for mathematics at their local school.
Their exceptional achievements (together with the overall performance of Masibambane High School, which achieved a 95% pass rate with 24 subject distinctions in 2010) prompted me to probe the reasons for their success. I argued that if we could identify the contributing factors we could try to replicate these achievements in other disadvantaged schools in the country.
After visiting Masibambane High and speaking to the principal Mr Rajan Naidoo and his staff, and a cross-section of parents and pupils, I concluded that a range of factors had contributed to their success. Most importantly opportunity (including facilities like a computer centre) and enormous personal effort by staff, parents and pupils, had played a role.
As argued by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”, I found that the secret to their success could be attributed to opportunity, natural ability combined with enormous personal effort and finally, a measure of good luck.
I argued that the story of Masibambane demonstrated what was possible if hard-working people were given the opportunity to succeed, and if all elements of the education system were aligned to achieve that outcome.
The recent release of the grade 12 examination results for 2011 has revealed many new stories of “Outliers” across the country who achieved exceptional results despite huge challenges. This year, I have chosen to focus on “institutional” lessons we can learn from these results, rather than individual “outliers”.
The most inspiring story is that of the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT) in Khayelitsha, which was ranked 9th out of the top ten schools in the province in the 2011 matric results. This is first time ever that a township school in the Western Cape has made the top ten on merit.
COSAT is one of the 500 “Dinaledi” schools spread across South Africa. The Dinaledi schools programme was initiated by the National Department of Education in 2001 as part of its national strategy for science, maths and technology. The main aim of the project is to increase maths and science pass rates by identifying schools across the country to receive increased resources and support particularly for the teaching and learning of maths and science. Initially 102 schools were identified as Dinaledi schools in 2002, which has expanded to the current 500 schools.
However, while millions have been spent on the programme since 2001 – it has received a conditional grant amounting to R70 million in 2011/12, which will reach R105.5 million in 2013/14 – the programme as a whole has, sadly, failed to achieve the desired results.
The primary aims of the programme are to increase the participation and performance of learners in mathematics and physical science so that we have more university enrolments in highly skilled fields like science, medicine, commerce and information technology. These are essential to drive economic growth and development in our country, which are pre-conditions to tackling our core problems of poverty and unemployment.
However, a report released by the national education department on the performance of these schools in the 2010 national senior certificate examinations (NSCE) reveals that the number of students writing maths in Dinaledi schools has declined since 2008. In 2008, 53 469 Dinaledi students wrote maths, which decreased to 50 921 in 2009 and 47 760 in 2010.
Of the Dinaledi students writing mathematics, 27 109 or 57% passed in 2010, which made up 21% of the total number of learners passing mathematics in the 2010 NSC examinations.
The same trend can also be seen when it comes to physical science. While more than 39 000 students at Dinaledi schools wrote physical science in 2009, 36 861 wrote in 2010 – with 59% of those who wrote passing the exam.
A report released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) also revealed the limited contribution made by Dinaledi schools to higher grade maths and science passes across the country.
The CDE divided schools into two broad categories when it comes to maths and science performance namely, (1) independent schools and the top quintile of public schools; and (2) the bottom four quintiles of public schools.
The study revealed that in 2004, 6.6 % of all schools in the country – all falling in category one – accounted for 66% of the passes in higher grade maths. Very few Dinaledi schools fall within this category.
In 2008, the bottom 75% of schools only produced 17% of the higher grade maths passes, while 50% of the passes were produced by 6.6% of category one schools.
The same trend could also be seen when one studies the pass rate for physical science. Only 13% of science passes in 2008 were produced by the bottom 75% of schools while 50% of science passes were produced by 5.5% of schools falling in the top quintile.
While the national department of education still needs to release a report on the performance of these schools in the 2011 NSC examinations, only 224 635 of the country's 496 090 matrics wrote the mathematics exam and fewer than half of the candidates passed the subject with at least 30%. The fact that less than 20% of those who wrote the maths exam scored more than 50% suggests that the lacklustre performance of Dinaledi schools will have continued in 2011.
It is within this context, that COSAT’s performance becomes even more remarkable. Instead of following the same trend as other schools in the Dinaledi programme, COSAT achieved a 100% maths pass rate (the school also achieved a 93% maths pass rate in 2009 and a 100% pass rate in 2010).
The question is: Why has this school, based in a poor township, excelled under the Dinaledi programme while other schools have not?
There are many factors, but I believe the most important are: student selection based on their aptitude for maths and science (unlike most Dinaledi schools that accept all applicants from their “catchment” area); and the selection of outstanding teachers.
There are critics of the COSAT model who argue that it offers better opportunities to a small cohort of pupils. This is an important argument and one to which I have given a great deal of thought. My conclusion is as follows: Many schools face such profound challenges that it will take many years of sound policy implementation to turn them into fully functional institutions. We are determined to achieve this where we govern. In the meantime it is essential that we identify those children particularly gifted in maths and science so that they can develop their talents optimally and contribute to the development of our country. It is not an “either or”. The COSAT model can co-exist with our strategies to improve schooling for all. We do not support the view that “if everyone cannot have it, nobody may.” This is the approach that destroys a country’s prospects for development.
It is instructive to examine the COSAT model more closely.
COSAT was established in January 1999 at the False Bay College Good Hope campus in Khayelitsha – initially without the permission of the Western Cape Education Department. It was only when I visited the campus in November 1999, as then MEC for Education, that permission was granted to start a Grade 10-12 programme at the FET college that would be formally recognised by the provincial department. It is appropriate here to pay tribute to Mr Cassie Kruger and his colleagues for their vision in starting the programme and persuading me to support it.
Up to 2009, COSAT was managed by the college, which also subsidised the programme – an estimated R8 million between 1999 and 2008.
The centre also enjoyed a more advantageous staff allocation than the “norms and standards” applied to the allocation of staff at schools, and teachers enjoyed similar status to that of the college staff, for example the Principal of COSAT enjoyed the same status as that of a programme head at the college. This resulted in highly skilled teachers being hand-picked to work at the school.
Unlike other Dinaledi schools - which are ordinary high schools that have been identified for the programme - COSAT was established in order to select children from the surrounding community who show ability and interest in maths and science, to enable them to receive an excellent grounding in these subjects to prepare them for further study.
Most other Dinaledi schools cannot turn away children from the surrounding disadvantaged areas if they do not show an aptitude for maths and science. The initial requirement for these children to study maths and science led to plummeting results for many Dinaledi schools, and undermined the chances of those learners who would have passed if they had been able to take subjects for which they had a better aptitude.
The fact that the school was based at the False Bay College also meant that teachers and learners had access to first class facilities. As part of the Western Cape Department of Education’s new infrastructure programme, the school moved to a new school building last year, which includes a new media centre, four computer labs, a mathematics subject room, two physical science labs, two chemistry labs and a technology room.
The new facility also resulted in COSAT enrolling Grade 8 learners for the first time last year, and learner numbers at the school is expected to rise to 500 by 2014, meaning 300 additional learners will now have access to quality education.
While access to proper educational resources is crucial it does not guarantee top results if an ethos of hard work and learning is absent. Committed and competent teachers are the crucial ingredient in excellent education.
A conversation with Principal Mrs Phadiela Cooper reveals the dedication of both teachers and learners at the school.
A school day begins at 08h00 and ends at 15h10, after which every learner is required to attend extra classes until 16h15. These afternoon lessons form part of a structured study programme where teachers identify and focus on learners’ weaknesses. Learners who aren’t having problems with the curriculum also attend enrichment classes where they work on more challenging problems. Last year, a group of learners wrote an advanced mathematics exam for the first time as a result of these enrichment sessions. All learners are also expected to attend classes on a Saturday. These afternoon and weekend lessons ensure all learners have access to an environment conducive to studying, which many of them do not enjoy at home.
Mrs Cooper also highlighted the culture of mutual support and encouragement that exists between teachers and learners.
For example, every learner receives seven progress reports during a school year, and after every round of reports a “Choc Awards” ceremony is held during assembly where the top four learners in each grade are recognised and awarded with a chocolate. While the actual award is small, the prestige of being called up onto stage and being recognised for your achievements is highly regarded by the learners. Mrs Cooper informed me that the entire school celebrates and cheers when a learner wins the award for the first time.
The staff is also committed to finding ways to improving lessons and existing systems at the school.
For example, while information technology (IT) is only offered from grade 10, the school has started offering basic IT lessons, including typing classes, to grade 8 learners so that they have some background knowledge by the time they enter grade 10. Teachers also find ways to make maths and science lessons fun, such as introducing robotics lessons, where learners get to build robots and which Ms Cooper says has become a highly popular new subject at the school.
Ms Cooper also believes that COSAT success would not have been possible without the support of the Western Cape Education Department and the district staff in the Khayelitsha area, who ensured there were no major disruptions when the school moved to its new premises last year.
In summary, the recipe is: Talented, hard-working students, dedicated teachers, an extensive after-hours support programme, performance monitoring through regular report cards, a culture of encouragement and recognition for hard work. This combination has resulted in COSAT becoming an “Outlier”.
COSAT is not the only success story. It is one of three STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) facilities in the province that handpick students from disadvantaged areas to provide them additional support in order to develop their aptitude for maths and science. The other two existing facilities are the Cape Academy in Tokai and the new Claremont High School that was established last year under the auspices of Westerford High School.
The Cape Academy also excelled in the 2011 NSC examinations with 82 of the 90 students who wrote maths passing and 7 learners achieving distinctions. The school also achieved 12 physical science distinctions and of the 90 learners who wrote the exam, 86 passed. While the first Grade 12 class will only matriculate in 2013 at Claremont High School, the Westerford’s Principal has indicated that the December examinations results reveal that learners in Grade 8 and Grade 10 have achieved results that are on par with the middle or top level achievers at his school.
While every learner, irrespective of aptitude and talent, deserves the opportunity of an excellent education, it is critical for our country’s development that we increase the number of learners writing and passing maths and science. (It is also important to note that we have several “Arts and Culture” focus schools, as well as a dedicated “Sports” school.)
It is crucial that our country starts producing more “Outlier” institutions like COSAT, even as we work hard to build the quality of every public school. This strategy, we believe, is essential to the success of South Africa’s democracy.