The Big Read: An annual farce that is not at all funny
It would be a waste of time to join the hype around the Grade 12 or NSC results announced this week. A more important question to ask is this: What has not changed in the Grade 12 results since the end of apartheid?
One, the massive drop-out rate continues even though this has been mitigated, in a sense, by "passing" failed pupils from Grade 11 into the final year of schooling. While the Grade 10 cohort enrolment stood at 1146285, the number of full-time pupils enrolled to write was 668122 which means that 478163 pupils "disappeared" en route to Grade 12 (Source, Equal Education). In other words, the system remains highly inefficient by losing so many pupils in the cycle of 12 years of schooling in numbers that are too large to explain away through "natural" reasons such as family migration or pupil deaths.
Two, the system remains highly unequal between middle class and mainly white schools and pupils, and the poor. Whether examination performance is compared by school quintiles or by size of province, all governmental efforts to reduce racial inequalities between schools have failed. It should be no surprise, again, that the Western Cape and Gauteng rank as the top two provinces, for those are the regions with the highest number of historically privileged schools; it follows that this week's "surprise" announcement that the pass rate has slumped between a massive 7% and 10% in the poorest provinces - Limpopo, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal - reflects both the larger numbers of poor pupils and failed interventions.
Three, the school system remains unstable. As one minister after another has found, the matric (now National Senior Certificate, NSC) pass rate tends to follow the laws of gravity - after a steady period of growth in the examination pass rate, it eventually comes down. When the results shoot up, the politicians claim their work is bearing fruit; when it drops, we are told (like this week) that the standards are getting tighter. And we fall for those jokes each and every time. Truth is, the system has not stabilised in part because of constant experimentation (like the so-called progressed pupils debacle) and in essence because we have not resolved the inequality effects among pupils, schools and provinces. So, from 2006 the pass rate grew to 67.7% (2010), 70.2% (2011), 73.9% (2012), and 78.2% (2013). Then gravity kicked in with 75.8% (2014) and now 70.2% (2015) with the promise that things will get worse. This did not stop the politicians from confusing the numbers who passed or attained university entrance with the depressing fact that the percentage of those passing or passing well has in fact decreased, for example the 2.5% drop in Bachelors passes. Either way, 236000 pupils failed even against our low threshold for passing school subjects.
What should be done? To change a system you need to first of all deal with root causes. Time remains a major variable explaining the difference between top-performing schools and weak schools. This is both a cultural problem (long years of low-energy commitment among teachers) and a political problem (serial disruption of school calendars by unions). By using every minute available for instruction, we can already move the needle when it comes to pupil outcomes. Then there is the teacher competence (not paper qualifications) problem; too many teachers do not know enough maths or science or history to teach at the level required in the senior phase. The best way to correct this is through intensive coaching as an alternative to inspections; that is, work with individuals and groups of teachers in their classrooms to ensure they can teach at the level required. This collegial model where a highly experienced teacher with a track record of achievement works alongside the resident teacher has been shown to deliver effective teaching and learning in South African schools. Centre-based training and generic development courses have little effect. Yes, this is more expensive in the short- term but the results are more durable over time.
And finally, make sure every pupil has the basic infrastructure that enables learning from a school with vital facilities to a textbook in every subject.
Only then would it approach fairness to provide a common examination to almost 800000 pupils on the premise that their opportunities to learn were more or less equal, regardless of race, school or province. Short of this, the NSC and its predecessor examinations remain a farce and simply reinforce the racial (and increasingly class) divisions in the school system.