Time to raise the bar
I am asking you to join me in a national campaign to raise the standard for passing in all school subjects to 50%.
Presently pupils in high school are allowed to pass three of the Grade 12 subjects at 30% and two with 40% and still qualify to obtain a National Senior Certificate and, with the right combination of passes, gain entry into university. This is dangerous and debilitating for the following reasons.
One, the signal sent by these very low standards for achievement is that we have low expectations of ourselves and of what we as a society can achieve.
We tell young people that, in theory, they can be ignorant of 70% (or 60%) of the subject matter content and that this is acceptable.
We tell employers not to expect too much of high school graduates, and we signal to universities that these destructively low standards should not bar entry to higher learning. In short, we demean ourselves and, to be frank, we play right into the hands of what was in fact the intention of our apartheid masters: to keep black people in constant subjugation.
Two, these low standards will position South Africa as losers in a globally competitive economy.
At a time when emerging economies are strengthening their education systems in a fast-changing world, South Africa is going in the opposite direction. We aspire to be a leader in Africa, and we complain bitterly when the West speaks for the developing world.
But the way to speak with authority among leading nations is from a position of strength, not weakness. Stagnating at 30/40 (pass percentage) runs the risk of condemning Africa's strongest economy and still most promising democracy to an afterthought in history.
Three, the 30/40 arrangement will maintain two classes (in both senses of the word) of school performers. This arrangement benefits mainly the black poor, to phrase the dilemma bluntly.
The deracialised middle classes in the better one-third of schools - by resources and functionality - will continue to a mass high pass rates and subject distinctions while we give false security to the masses in dysfunctional schools that they, too have passed; in fact, they have failed.
Education remains the best instrument for closing the socioeconomic inequalities that separate these two classes of schools in the country.
I am certainly not suggesting that the education authorities artificially inflate the 30/40 arrangement to 50; quite the opposite.
The 50% standard of achievement should be used to ensure government meets the input standards (qualified teachers, textbooks for every child, basic infrastructure and so on) and process standards (predictable school timetables, teachers on task for every lesson, every day and so on) to ensure that this barely respectable minimum of education achievement becomes a reality for all our children.
In other words, the 50% position is a measure of accountability for the state to deliver on its provisioning mandate rather than to celebrate the systematic dumbing down of the youth on the basis of low standards.
In this regard the campaign by Equal Education to hold provincial governments accountable for minimum standards of provisioning fits right into the logic of the 50% campaign. The standards set are not only for pupils but for all of us in the education chain of command: government, principals, teachers, and then only the pupils.
I understand the migration towards 50% will need to be gradual for the simple reason that it will be a major political embarrassment for the government and the ruling party when tens of thousands of additional pupils fail.
I propose we start with abandoning the 30% passing level immediately (applied in 2013), and then gradually push the standard passing levels up by 5% every year so that by 2015 we would have established the new norm of 50% for passing in all school subjects.
There is an important psychological motivation for this position that we can bank on.
When nations set their standards high, systems respond to the higher demands. Young people who receive the consistent message that we expect more from them, that we trust them to do better, tend to rise to those adult expectations.
Teachers and principals will adjust to the new demands, knowing their reputations as professionals require aiming higher rather than pushing unsuspecting pupils over the lower bars.
Universities and employers will begin to trust the products of our education system, and fewer independent schools will jettison the state examinations.
At the heart of the 50% campaign is my deep belief that we can do better as a nation, and that we have not even begun to take advantage of the tremendous capability of all our young people.