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Selection tests for school admission a complex issue

Image: SAMORN TARAPAN/123rf.com

Mondale High School is located in Portlands, Mitchells Plain, a rough neighbourhood of the Cape Flats.

So, it was not expected that Mondale would unleash a hot debate on social media by announcing that primary school applicants for grade 8, the first year of high school, would sit for admissions tests.

Poor and working-class schools cannot afford to do selection tests. Many such schools need the enrolment numbers to justify their teacher posts or the salary levels of a principal.

Others simply could not care given the many other things to worry about, like gang violence on the outside and disciplinary problems on the inside of these troubled schools.

My first instinct was to join the long list of activists on Facebook crying foul. Public schools should not subject children to the pressure of selection tests. It is against expressed policy.

It discriminates against those who come from dysfunctional primary schools, in effect blaming the children for substandard teaching in the earlier grades.

Then there are the late bloomers, like me, who might not have made the cut. The longer I stayed in school (and university), the better I got at it. A lot of parents, desperate to get their children into at least one of the few outstanding schools on the Cape Flats, were hopping mad about these admission tests.

On reflection, I now fully support the Mondale decision for the following reasons. Whether it is policy or not, many of the elite and former white schools select their students.

Some of them lie outright, saying these tests are for diagnostic purposes, to determine how much maths or language the child knows in order to provide the proper support and understanding. Hogwash.

The way these schools gain their academic reputations is by creaming off the best scholastic performers from the sending schools.

What then happens is that the top students want to come to the top schools so that over time academic excellence is baked into the school’s internal culture and external reputation.

So, here’s the interesting conundrum that Mondale represents. In the vast stretches of Mitchells Plain, the dumping grounds for many families forcefully removed by apartheid’s group areas legislation, there are only two or three excellent high schools.

Spine Road, for example, participates and excels in the mathematics olympiads and announces on its website that “all our teachers are carefully selected” (Sadtu must be outraged!) and “all classes planned ... to give each student the edge they need in all future pursuits and study.” Holy smoke! When last did you see that kind of commitment from “a mathematics and science focused school” in the townships?

What selection does is to create in a sea of mediocrity at least some black schools that show what is possible when principals and teachers take children seriously, invest in their education and give them hope beyond the limited horizons of their immediate environments.

Heaven knows, we desperately need schools that buck the trend. Unless you’re asleep at the wheel, you know this government is not going to change our schools anytime soon; watch and weep as Eastern Cape schools this week went into a rage because they lack five or more teachers simply to keep the operation going.

I understand the egalitarian impulses of the activists. But their position, consequentially, means that all schools admit any and all students without any selection filter and therefore share the mediocrity among them.

The intentions are good but the outcomes mean that there will be no Mondales or Spine Roads, only the equal distribution of misery.

What selective schools do is to every year provide hundreds of children with excellent matric passes to access good universities and gain solid degrees to obtain well-paying jobs that pull their families and communities out of poverty.

There is a multiplier effect down the road that comes with a selection decision that started years earlier. Here’s my point: until the system changes, selection is a reasonable strategy for pulling more and more top learners out of poverty.

To be clear, my personal choices would be different. Given a chance to teach, I would definitely prefer to be appointed in a broken school with struggling learners who need a chance at a good education.

My current development work is with schools at the bottom of the performance tables.

At the same time, I understand why excellence at the top cannot only be a white and middle-class thing.

That kind of thinking produces its own dangers and dilemmas for an unequal and divided country like ours.

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