The (New) Quiet Revolution

Did you know that there is a quiet revolution happening deep in the heart of Gauteng? Not political but rather educational! And it takes its inspiration from an Englishman from 170 years ago. Lord Kevin, an eminent scientist at the time, is noted for having said (among many other wise words) "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it." As a man of science, he knew the only road to progress was to know where you started from, where you wanted to go, and how far you had travelled along that path. And while he may have been talking about science, it is easy to see that exactly the same can be said of education. As has been repeatedly said, literacy teaching is not rocket science. But should we not make the same demands of educationalists as we do of scientists? Is the teacher and tutor not accountable for ensuring that not only teaching happens, but there is also measurable progress in learning? What other profession does not have some form of monitoring to ensure the funder is getting a return on their investment? Of course I am sure you can find some. But do you pay for it in the same way that you pay taxes which pay for education? This is where the quiet revolution is happening in Gauteng.

In some countries there are national tests which are used to track progress and make comparisons. Complex formulae are used to set targets and measure outcomes, so the results reflect local conditions. This means a school in a poor district which is underachieving can make greater gains (and receive greater praise) for improvements even if the overall scores remain lower than a high achieving school. Therefore you are compared to ‘yourself’, and progress can be monitored at a region, school or individual level. This may be referred to as criterion reference, where the criterion is how well you did last time.

It would be fair to suggest that the revolution in Gauteng is still finding its way. Not because there is no vision, but because the potential for change is exceeding expectations. But clearly it is well on its way, and showing some significant gains from a small investment. So what is this revolution, and how can you be sure it is a real revolution and not a short lived local uprising?

Two years ago, Gauteng FET colleges started a pilot study to investigate the potential of using a computer-based tool to identify strengths and weaknesses of students, particularly with respect to literacy and numeracy. With retention rates less than 50 percent, and certification rates as low as 40 percent, clearly there is something wrong with the system, with billions of rands being wasted every year, and nobody knows where the problems are and why they exist. It was hoped that by having a system that could monitor and track students, some key questions could be answered, even if they did not at the time know all the right questions to ask. They have been using this online student Profiler to provide a wealth of information far beyond expectations, replacing assumptions about teaching practices and student learning potential with quantitative information that inform practice. Not only do they have information on every student (including some surprising low literacy scores in some cases which leads to questions about how these students were enrolled), but also‎ they can track disabilities, identify minimal literacy skills needed for courses and rapidly identify failing sectors of their educational community.

With over 12 000 students having already been through the student profiling system, some of the first real indicators of success are beginning to have an impact. In a recent survey, key outcomes for staff appeared to be among others the ability to identify those with significant literacy skills, who may struggle in their chosen course, and target support at the individual level. A great boon in the profiling process is the ability to identify across each of the eight colleges (each with five campuses) who has disabilities (declared and undeclared), and put in place appropriate support at the campus level as well as  to  identify the minimal literacy levels that appear to be necessary to successfully complete a course.

That is not to suggest that the revolution is complete. But what has been shown is that no longer can those in educational administration claim there is no way to understand the causes of failure, at a student level and at an institution level. Gauteng FET Colleges have proved that with a vision, the tools are now there to change peoples’ lives for the better. So let us see if those in power (educational and political) can see that they can make a difference. And they owe it to the people of South Africa, the tax payers and the learning generation as they head towards employment. Let us not have yet another failing generation. Let us embrace our mistakes of the past, and use the tools of today to change all our futures.

    - Dr Ian Smythe is an international education consultant, actively involved in the development of assessment tools in South Africa and brings together expertise in the literacy and assessment environments with specific reference to disenfranchised communities. See


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