Matric results are a disgraceful freak show

11 January 2018 - 10:54
Lingelihle Primary School at Ciko village near Willowvale is one of the many run-down mud schools in the Eastern Cape.
Lingelihle Primary School at Ciko village near Willowvale is one of the many run-down mud schools in the Eastern Cape.
Image: Simpiwe Nkwali

I was delighted to be out of the country and escape the annual freak show of the Department of Basic Education also known as the ministerial announcement of the 2017 matriculation results. Fortunately much of the South African public no longer believes the minister’s fake news. Our sophisticated public would in fact agree with one of my academic supervisors that “if you torture the data long enough eventually it will confess”. Here’s another way to look at the tortured data of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) results:

The Department of Basic Education says the matric pass rate is 75.1%, about 2.5% higher than in 2016. To believe such nonsense the minister is asking that you forego common sense. Forget that more than half the pupils who started in Grade 1 with these successful matriculants actually dropped out of the system. Forget that we know 78% (almost eight out of 10) children cannot read with understanding in Grade 4, a recent finding that placed us last among 50 countries with which South Africa was compared. Forget also that we know 9% of Grade 6 teachers cannot pass a Grade 6 math test. Forget that the pass mark in some subjects is 30%. In other words, ignore completely the available scientific studies of the actual state of the school system and pretend that the government is doing a good job and that the ruling party has delivered on its promises of a better life for all.

So why has the pass rate increased? Simple, because fewer pupils wrote and passed the Grade 12 examinations. If, as my colleague at the University of Stellenbosch Nic Spaull has argued, you measured the pass rate not by the few who got to Grade 12 but by the number of pupils who started in Grade 10 (1,074,746 in 2015) and who wrote in Grade 12 (534,484 in 2017) and who passed from this group (401,334 in 2017), then the throughput pass rate is closer to 37%. It is after all a senior certificate examination and that means we account for Grades 10-12. To put this bluntly the three provinces that saw their percentage pass rates increase (Limpopo, KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape) just so happen to be the ones in which the numbers writing have decreased.

Which raises for me a much more fundamental question: What does it say about a government that celebrates the few who ran and survived the obstacle course from Grades 1 through 12 but ignores the majority who failed along the way? And it is not as if the few who passed and even those who graduated with a so-called Bachelors pass (which formally means they can study towards a degree) have a solid academic education to see them through tertiary studies. In fact, we know most of these students will drop out of university and few would attain the degree within the minimum time. That is because the quality of the NSC examination is so weak in the intellectual demands made of pupils that any fool can scale the 30% (three subjects) and 40% (three subjects including home language) passing hurdles.

What does it say about a government that celebrates the few who ran and survived the obstacle course from Grades 1 through 12 but ignores the majority who failed along the way?

Let me say it: this government and its basic education department are a disgrace to the nation. They have failed our children, mainly black and poor learners stuck in dysfunctional schools. The children of the middle classes, white and black, are the ones who mainly pass and succeed through this inequitable system. Those also happen, by the way, to be the children of government ministers and officials happily ensconced in former white public and especially private schools.

I worry about what happens between these annual freak shows. A few days ago I got this inbox message from a Grade 12 student from EZ Kabane High School in Port Elizabeth after I had posted a critical comment on the minister’s celebration of the results:

“I was so inspired yesterday when I saw your post and realised how everything you said was true. I’m a grade 12 student this year and I fear that I won’t pass this year due to the lack of responsibility from some other teachers. It’s been a struggle not having a permanent maths and life sciences teacher. It’s a huge concern to most of us who want to pass and head to university. Please sir bring a change to these people misleading us.”

I mention the name of the school (but obviously not the pupil) so that the politicians and officials responsible could act on this situation and give these children a chance at success in school and careers. I will of course pursue this case and ensure that action happens. But there are hundreds of schools in this situation in the Eastern Cape alone and to change the status quo you need a government. A different government, one that does the hard work during the school year rather than boasting about a failed system in January each year.


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