Get with the programme

Business’ role in the response to the ICT education debate

By Sarah Meder

Falling levels of literacy in maths and science will impact on the future of the South African technology industry’s ability to compete in global markets. A BBC article headline South Africa anger at ‘worst maths and science’ ranking (BBC, 2014) neatly mirrors the response of the South African Department of Basic Education to criticism of the levels of mathematics and science literacy of learners – denial.

Much like the rest of the world, South Africa has seen a decline in the number of students taking up the subjects of maths and science by the time they reach the senior phase of schooling.

However, unlike counterparts in the developed world, South Africa has yet to propose a sustainable strategy to deal with this growing crisis. In fact, the matric results of 2013 were hailed as a success with overall pass rates improving from previous years. A deeper look at the results, however, gives an indication of how pressing the situation around maths and science has become.

The World Economic Forum has ranked South Africa 146th in overall education and making it one of the worst in terms of mathematics and science education. The Department of Basic Education responded to discredit the survey, claiming they were based on opinion rather than on actual assessments completed by the learners themselves. They draw attention to other investigations that show improvement in these areas.

As Campbell and Prew state in their Mail & Guardian article (Mail & Guardian, 2014), South African matriculants are indeed passing at a higher rate. “But this good news does not translate for the level of maths and science teaching and learning.” And certainly not at the levels and numbers needed by the growing technology sector.

Campbell and Prew assert that the origin of problem lies in the foundation phase of education. Based on the Annual National Assessment results, they suggest that there is “a pattern that less than half the learners in each cohort show foundational competence in mathematics, as indicated by the 61% of grade six learners who failed to score 50%”. This paints a grim picture of how a lack of fundamental knowledge has a knock-on effect in later years. While the learner might achieve a pass, they still lack the fundamental skills and thinking needed to take the subject at a tertiary level.

Are businesses willing to be leaders for education, training children now, for potential employees later?

It is becoming harder for local technology companies to find candidates who fit the educational and experiential criteria to fill roles. Interestingly, the Department of Basic Education attempts to invalidate the WEF’s report as a result of the survey being “based on interviews conducted with business sector executives and reflects nothing more than their personal perceptions” (Department of Basic Education, 2014).

This begs the question: who is best placed to say whether the education system is producing young people with the right skills for employment in the technology industry? Surely this insight must come from the private sector – only they understand the skills and mindset needed to compete at a global level.
If we look to world leaders in technology and innovation, we see strong ties between government education departments and industry to ensure effective supply to meet demand in terms of skilled graduates. Sadly, the Department of Basic Education in South Africa has a history of ignoring the needs of the local technology industry (Saratoga, 2013).

The good news is that despite all these obstacles some companies are taking a proactive stance in dealing with long-term strategies to mitigate the fallout that has yet to reach its full impact. Technology companies are starting to get involved in education. For example, corporate giant Microsoft has launched an initiative to provide free broadband to South African schools.

Saratoga is involved at various levels of education, from supporting a school in Khayelitsha, supporting school and university level events, designing course content for UCT, and playing their part in the local entrepreneurial scene by hosting and sponsoring Net Prophet Sparkup! which grooms small business and puts them in touch with angel investors. Tracy Gander, Sparkup! co-ordinator and Creative Director of Saratoga, stresses that “we try to do what we can with the resources available. But we know it’s not enough. We have the privilege and opportunity to have a direct impact in the local community and must work smarter to drive the economy and development of South Africa through these community initiatives.”

More businesses should invest in initiatives that support and build on basic education. To be truly felt, we need to encourage companies of all sizes, not just the corporates, to get involved if we’re going to survive the global marketplace.

Businesses need to get with the programme

The problems around the future of South African competitiveness in technology is nothing to do with the lack of ability of the learners in the areas of maths and science, but in government’s willpower to make big changes – the ability of the learners is there but remains untapped. For a real solution to be found for the failings in education, Industry leaders will need to work together to put increasing amounts of pressure on government in order to improve standards.
It is only by improving connectedness between Industry and the Department of Basic Education that we will be able to ensure South African Education gives every learner the best possible chance to reach their full potential and enter into the work environment with the skills needed to give them, and the technology industry as a whole, the competitive edge.

To quote a comment from Sibusiso Zungo (in ITWEB, 2014) “I think we should get off our high horses, stop feeling sorry for this country and act.”