THE Basic Education Department has spent almost R1bn on annual national assessments but the system is “sick”, say teacher unions.

The unions — the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu); the National Teachers Union (Natu); the Professional Educators Union and the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysunie — held a joint briefing at the National Professional Teachers Organisation of SA’s (Naptosa’s) headquarters in Pretoria on Monday where they demonstrated an unprecedented show of unity against the tests.

Union officials conceded that the organisations had been blindsided by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Friday when she announced that the tests would be written in December.

Earlier in the week, the Council of Education Ministers and the unions had supposedly agreed to hold off on the tests until February. But the unions said that there had been no such arrangement.

Speaking on the sidelines of the briefing, Natu deputy president Allen Thompson told Business Day: “For the last five years, R1bn has been spent (on assessments); what has that R1bn done? Nothing, except to say the system is sick.”

Department of Basic Education spokesman Elijah Mahlangu said although he did not have the figure of how much had been spent on the tests since 2011 at hand, the R1bn cited by unions was off the mark.

But the figure quoted to service providers for this year’s tests stood at about R630m.

Mr Thompson, meanwhile, cited the lack of external markers as one of the issues the unions had raised with the department without much luck.

The tests, which were introduced in 2011 to assess intermediate and foundation phase pupils’ literacy and numeracy, were good for identifying problems in the system, but remedial action was not forthcoming, he said.

Since 2011, test results showed that Grade 1 to 3 pupils did well in numeracy and literacy. But, the results of pupils from Grade 4 and upwards began to deteriorate.

Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke on Monday reiterated the unions’ weekend statement that they would not administer this year’s tests.

However, if a task team set up to remodel the tests arrived at an adequate way to assess pupils, the unions would soften their stance, Mr Maluleke said.

The task team comprises union representatives, department officials and education experts.

Naptosa’s Basil Manuel bemoaned the frequency of tests.

Brahm Fleisch, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, said the tests were important as they shone a light on primary school issues that had often been neglected because of a matric bias.

Prof Fleisch said both the unions and the department needed to balance their perspectives as neither was wrong.

Both parties needed a better platform to debate, he added.

Last year’s national pass rates for numeracy were: 68% for Grade 1; 62% for Grade 2; 55% for Grade 3; 37% for Grade 4; 37% for Grade 5; 43% for Grade 6; and 11% for Grade 9.

The national pass rates for home languages were: 63% for Grade 1; 62% for Grade 2; 56% for Grade 3; 57% for Grade 4; 57% for Grade 5; 63% for Grade 6; and 48% for Grade 9.

Many of these grades were below the 60% target the department set in 2013.