Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

What do good grades mean?

“I find it difficult to answer why the Netherlands is doing so well because what do grades mean? To which countries do you compare?”

These are the words of a young teacher, Cees, from the Netherlands. The question he poses is an important one for understanding the complexities in global education. Education is measured according to statistics. The statistic obsession begins in classrooms when we measure our students’ abilities according to numbers. But statistics are a necessary evil it seems. Without statistics in education, how do we get a sense of measuring outcomes and talking about how change needs to happen?

Cees teaches in a country that boasts one of the best education systems in the world. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment 2012 study the average performance in reading for 15-year-olds is 511 points, compared to an average of 496 points in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. In mathematics on average, 15-year-olds score 523 points, compared to an average of 494 points in OECD countries. In science literacy they score 522 points in the Netherlands compared to an average of 501 points in OECD countries. In North America and Western Europe, 96% of children reach grade 4 and achieve the minimum learning benchmark in reading. By contrast, only one-third of children in South and West Asia and two-fifths in sub-Saharan Africa reach grade 4 and achieve the basics. It seems obvious, students in wealthier countries perform better than students in poorer countries. But let’s consider the simple question, what are the teachers doing?

In reflection Cees highlights the importance that is placed on professional development in the Netherlands: “Everyone has to write a professional development plan and in that plan you have your growing points — your developing points — and we do this every year … we have a lot of training in how to deal with problem kids — pedagogical side — and those trainings are really moving because they tell a lot about your own personal difficulties. [Teachers] design choice in [the] lesson programmes for the disadvantaged students. So the more [we] focus on the pupil with learning activities, the more different choices they have. Lots of 360° reflections on yourself in Holland; thinking about what does this problem I have say about me. 5%-10% of our time is reserved for professional development every year — courses and training. 10% is a big amount!”

Cees also adds that when new teachers begin teaching they have supervision and mentors — two coaches — one for supervision on the psychological reflection and one for more general studies. Once the teachers have gained experience they don’t have a coach, but in every school a community of practice is created where five teachers with equal teaching experience, share techniques and teaching strategies. Teachers use this time to reflect about their practice (and these conversations are preceded with special training to lead such conversations). Good teaching is not simply about being in the classroom (that is the minimum requirement), but it’s about what happens before teaching as well as the reflection that happens in between. How do we measure the effect of this kind of practice? Is it possible to statistically represent the qualitative work that goes into teaching (in Cees’s case) and then compare with other countries as he poses? I’m sceptical about that. Professional development goes beyond the hours spent on thinking about one’s practice. It’s about the value you place on it in order to make the most of your teaching and improve it. Professional development is about resources, both tangible and intangible.

Cees describes his students as students who are “the masters of their own learning process”. They are taught how to cooperate, how to be self-supporting, and to make their own decisions about how to learn things. Cees does not teach at an “elite school”. By South African standards, the kind of professional development and student body described here can be found in schools where there are resources; where the teachers and students are largely middle class and resources available to create performance-driven schools. The average school in South Africa does not have this kind of culture of teaching and learning.

Quality education is not about the basics (can the children read and write) but rather about the whole experience of teaching and learning as well as the future consequences of the education one has received. Hence, children in countries that are performance-driven have better results than children from poorer countries. But the table below[1] highlights this complexity further. If one looks closely, countries like Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Trinidad and Tobago are unlikely candidates for school performance given their resources. This shows that there’s something happening in these countries where they are able to perform in spite of not having the resources.


Context, culture, history always disturbs calculations about what really matters in education. Teaching and learning is a human-intensive profession with factors that can be measured and others that cannot be measured. Teaching and learning is about both qualitative and quantitative elements that need attention in different ways. The question posed by Cees — “To which country do you compare?” — highlights the complexity of teaching and learning. It’s too easy to say it’s about being rich and poor. It’s more than that. When we focus on Cees’s story about teaching in the Netherlands is it fair to compare it to someone in a completely different context such as Margaret in Kibera or Esnart from Malawi?

[1] Education for All Global Monitoring Report c/o UNESCO,, 2013

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    • bernpm

      Look at my comment on your previous blog. I described the effect of an unbalance between “educational demand” and “educational supply”.

      In SA, shortly after the lauded establishment of the rainbow nation, the education unionists demanded a halt to the regular inspections (=quality control) of schools.

      Compare that to your friend’s system in the Netherlands where inspectors do visit school on a regular basis.

      One global golden rule: NO quality control, quality will go down if not go away completely.

      If such a quality control is equally missing in the teacher training, the rot will move faster down the lines until no education of any kind (and compatible with other countries) will take place.

      If the “drive to teach” and the “drive to learn” are both missing, the results will be the end product of some “slapgat” process. A relatively few number of good willing teachers cannot stop the overall rot in the system.

    • Garg Unzola

      I find it strange that someone from the Netherlands, which does perform rather well on PISA, would question the validity of good grades. Clearly, it’s not as simple as countries with more resources do well, especially when countries with fewer resources also tend to do well (or make the most of their situation).

      I find it more telling that South Africa stopped participating in PISA after a poor performance in those results. Rather, I think the answer lies in the rest of your description of the system in the Netherlands: A culture of self-reflection, self-criticism and a honest means of evaluating performance.

      It’s true that an obsession with statistics does not necessarily give us the latter, but it’s better than not having an anti-intellectual obsession with negating their usage.

    • Brianb

      Netherlands Population 16.8 million,GDP :$707.0 billion,$42,194 per capita,Unemployment,5.3%,Inflation .

      A predominantly uni-lingual country with very high living standards and a culture of stability and prosperity which is intergenerational.

      It is therefore relatively easy to maintain high educational standards while exploring innovation.

      Compare this to the situation in South Africa and one begins to grasp the magnitude of our problems .

      Perhaps the first priority is to vocationally coach our adults so that they become more performance driven while at the same time improving education for our children.

    • bernpm

      BrianB: “Perhaps the first priority is to vocationally coach our adults so that they become more performance driven while at the same time improving education for our children.”

      See my comment about “quality control”, the first measure to begin a serious improvement.

    • mk

      bernpm: “One global golden rule: NO quality control, quality will go down if not go away completely”

      I fully agree with you on this point. The current situation regarding the textbook delivery to schools in SA speaks for this. How can we compare our standards of teaching to other countries if our children do not even have the necessary resources?

      I do believe that there are a lot of schools in SA that can easily compare and even be at the top of these statistcs, but I think that these are overshadowed by the majority of schools lacking in resources. If quality control was still in place factors such as these would be eliminated and schools could be able to compete on the same level.