Let's Think

Matric results – wrong end of the stick

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Many things have changed in South Africa since 1994, but one thing remained:  the hype around the annual announcement of the matric results as a yardstick of the state of school education in the country. It is a tradition we will do well to discard.

The tradition has over the years taken on almost ritualistic proportions, with what most experts describe as an obsession with matric results. But, to us, it looks more as if it has become a case of mass escapism, rather than an obsession.

In the process the really important lesson from the results gets lost: South Africa’s system of basic education is a dismal failure and in an awful mess.

The real results

While 72.5% of the 717 971 learners who wrote the matric exams passed, they represent only 44.8% of the more than 1.8 million learners who entered the system as grade two learners in 2005. The system’s failure rate in 2016 was a staggering nearly 55%!

It is clear, and has been for some time, that better measurements and monitoring need to be put in place on an annual basis to address problems at each phase of leaners’ educational careers, which effectively start 12 years before matric in grade R.

Especially the drop-out rate between grade 10 and matric should be an area of great concern and should tell educational authorities to what extent the system fails learners at the lower levels.

And it is probably also not only a learning problem. We should ask ourselves as a South African community whether there are enough motivational programmes in place to create a culture which is positive towards education.

There is also evidence that the fixation with matric results is the cause of ‘culling’ processes to wean out weaker candidates to ‘protect’ schools’ pass rates. It often happens as late as during learners’ matric year. In the case of the Eastern Cape about 92 000 pupils registered at the beginning of 2016, but only about 82 000 actually sat for the exams.

Closer scrutiny is also needed of the phenomenon of increasing numbers of learners registering for the matric exams but not pitching up to write them.

Waste of resources

According to United Nations data, South Africa allocates a higher proportion of its national budget towards education than countries like the United States, Germany and Britain.

South Africa spent R213.7 billion on basic education in the 12 months ended March last year, or about 15% of the total budget, and the allocation is projected to rise an average of 7.4% annually over the next three years, according to the Treasury.

On the African continent South Africa has the same percentage of grade six-aged children that are literate as Uganda (71%), yet spends more than 18 times as much per child. It also spends almost five times as much per pupil ($1225) compared to Kenya ($258). On functional literacy rates, South Africa also performs worse than Namibia ($668 per child), and Swaziland ($459 per child).

Despite this, when the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SAMCEQ 2007) tested grade six learners from 14 African countries in reading and mathematics, South Africa came 10th for reading and 8th for mathematics, behind low-income countries like Swaziland, Kenya and Tanzania.

The World Economic Forum also considered an inadequately skilled workforce as the third-most problematic factor for doing business in South Africa, after government bureaucracy and restrictive labour regulations.

It is clear that South Africa’s taxpayers are not getting value for their money the way it is spent by the educational system. In the words of Elizabeth Walton, associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand: “The national pass rate is a very blunt instrument with which to dissect South Africa’s very complex educational problems.”

It obscures important differences in provincial achievements, the urban/rural divide and the unequal outcomes for learners in poorer schools, and more.

Core problem

The core of the problem that is camouflaged by the fixation on the national matric results is that the country’s primary education system was rated 126th out of 138 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2016-17 Global Competitiveness Report.

We agree with the NGO Equal Education, that the largest investment in terms of recourses and effort is needed in the early school grades, while currently it goes towards high schools and is aimed at ensuring good results for the minority that makes it to matric level.

The consequence of poor quality early childhood development, and poor quality foundation phase education, is to rob us of the opportunity to reduce learning gaps and develop the potential of children, despite wider socio-economic problems.

By the time learners reach high school they have developed almost unbridgeable learning deficits.

According to estimates by Equal Education, for instance, by grade three, children in the poorest 60% of schools are already three years’ worth of learning behind learners in more affluent circumstances. By the time these children reach grade nine, they are five years’ worth of learning behind.

Innovative thinking

Some innovative thinking is needed to turn the education ship around. In her article on The Conversation website dealing with the challenges faced by the school system, prof Walton suggests a revisit of an earlier suggestion that the current pass or fail system be scrapped.

She suggests that that learners should instead be allowed to complete grade 12 with a basket of subjects and results which could then be presented to an employer or institution of higher learning.

“This would shift the focus from the national pass rate to the enrolment and results of individual subjects. It might also mean that schools could be less concerned with an overall school pass rate and rather focus on subject-level improvement over time.

“I also think we need to be realistic in terms of what we expect a matric qualification to signal. The minister of basic education has noted that it is an exit qualification and not (a) primarily a tool for evaluating the progress of the system,” she writes.

Final word

It is interesting to note that to address the present ‘one-size-fits-all’ matric, the Department of Basic Education has proposed a three-stream education system with an Academic Stream, a Technical Vocational Stream and a Technical Occupational Stream.

At least in the Transvaal province prior to 1994, in the then white schools, such a dispensation was in place and worked well. There might be some lessons to learn there.

At the announcement of the 2016 matric results, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said: “We will be the first to concede that despite the notable improvements in the system, we are yet to cross our own Rubicon. We must agree that much has been achieved, but much more needs to be done in the area of efficiency and quality.”

We will only cross that educational ‘Rubicon’ if educational authorities get hold of the right end of the stick, and that is to be found at primary school level.

by Piet Coetzer

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