Dear MEC Debbie Schafer
In the past month our organisation has been involved in grassroots level research, attempting to understand how our partner school sites manage school data. What we learned has been both a pleasant surprise and a great tragedy.
Every school is required to do reporting concerning attendance, performance and enrolment data on a scheduled interval basis. At the provincial level, a central management information system is adopted to facilitate the tracking of such information. Western Cape Education Department utilises a system called CEMIS while the other provinces use a system called SA-SAMS (South African School Administration and Management System). The adoption of SA-SAMS in other provinces has also allowed for their data to be integrated through projects like the Data Driven Districts Dashboard which is able to generate quality reports that could potentially be used to address important concerns such as school drop-out.
Unfortunately, the CEMIS system often requires manual entry, allows only a limited time-frame for data inputs (and with result users often experiences lags and crashes), and does not generate all of the reporting tools necessary for the effective management of schools. What this translates into for teachers and school administrators is the re-entry of data 2-3 times from Excel spreadsheets into third party tools as well as into the CEMIS system. This creates several opportunities for human error but also creates a massive workload which takes time (a resource many underprivileged schools don’t have a lot of). One school administrator we spoke to even suggested that it took a half-day of work simply to verify information in CEMIS because the pages open slowly. Aside from it consuming precious school time, it also becomes a demoralising task much similar to waiting for wet paint to dry.
When we consulted our partner schools, we found that each school we visited was using their own third-party software to assist with generating useful reports for school management. Some of these were designed by enterprising educators who took to the task of learning advanced data-base design, while others were designed by former educators now in the field of information technology. So many community based coders and developers are having to come to the rescue of schools because the system which has been adopted is inadequate to meet the needs of school administrators.
Wealthy schools are able to lighten the load of their teachers and school administrators by adopting premium rate information management systems such as MyStaffroom which bills per learner per month. These solutions cut-down admin time significantly and offer information management tools that even support better teaching practice but their rates lock out schools serving low-SES communities.
It would seem that the obvious solution to the school administration and data management puzzle is for the WCED to either redesign CEMIS in such a way that it includes more streamlined ways of data capturing, as well as more helpful report generation tools to aid school management. As a side issue, it might even be helpful for schools to be able to track whether learners who leave their school are still in “the system” (are they at another school or have they dropped out completely? have they made it to Grade 12?). If CEMIS is too old and cumbersome to be improved in this way, then why not gather a team of new developers that can rebuild it from the ground up, in consultation with school administrators as well as the very many community “developers” out there to create a system that does the job and is user friendly enough for educators to use. It needs to get down to the point of one data capture (preferably that capture should be the one the teacher does to mark the student present or absent, or to load their results).
In some contexts, the last week of school ends up being a time for managing schools reporting processes instead of a time for learning, not because students aren’t ready to learn or teachers aren’t prepared to teach but simply because the administrative burden is too much for under-resourced, under-staffed schools to bear.
Please MEC Debbie Schafer, will you use your power to change this so that we can get on with the business of schooling? We are not advocating for the adoption of SA-SAMS, MyStaffroom or any particular tool. Instead, we’re simply asking that the problem of data management is simplified for schools and that this work is done by developers who understand both IT as well as the contextual realities of schooling in the township.
Let’s lift the administrative burden from our teachers.
Also published on Medium.