Forget the matric ballyhoo and focus on the real issues that need fixing

SA's obsession with the annual NSC results and which is the 'top' province distracts us from the fact that the system is failing most of our children

06 January 2019 - 00:00 By MARY METCALFE

Because the National Senior Certificate (NSC) results have great significance in the lives of individuals and families, SA celebrates the release of the results. We know that futures are determined by this rite of passage that makes an absolute difference to life chances, to opportunities for further study and any hope of employment.
But the annual ritual of the matric results announcement has assumed an exaggerated significance and is a distraction from our real education challenges
Whether the pass is 77%, 79% or 81%, the real figures to which we should be holding ourselves accountable for the improvements on which our future so crucially depends are 22%, 35%, 46%, 61%. We must expect regular high-profile reports to the nation on progress relative to these four figures.
There are four key distractions in the annual NSC ritual. First, education improvement is a long, hard process and expectations of sudden shifts are unrealistic. Between 2010 and 2017, the range of the overall pass mark was between 68% and 78%, and the average was 73%. The 2018 pass mark topped this range at 78.2%.
Second, the national matric pass rate does not tell the story of all our children but of only the 60% (at most) who stay long enough to write the NSC - and with a pass rate of 80% the celebrations are for no more than 46% of our children. All children should leave school with a certificate indicating some form of achievement, but more than 50% leave with a sense of failure and an uncertain future.
The National Development Plan (NDP) commits SA to achieving a 90% retention rate by 2030. We have 12 more years to achieve what we have not achieved in 25 years.
Third, the focus on the "top" province is inappropriate. The starting points and contexts are not the same, nor are the sizes of the systems. The jostling for the "prize" is based on minuscule differences. What divides the top province from the province that comes second is often a fraction of a percent. The Free State came first three times in the past five years and Gauteng and the Western Cape once each. The six provinces that are assured of performing in the 75%-88% band are Gauteng, the Western Cape and the Free State, with the North West, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape not far behind. No surprises.
The provinces that are struggling are KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. These three are critically important for the future of our country. They have a massive 62% of the country's learners and both the lowest NSC pass rates and the highest dropout rates. This is where we bleed our youth.
By contrast, only 25% of our learners are in the Free State, the Western Cape, North West and Mpumalanga. The heavy lifting to improve education and the life chances of young people has to happen in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and in Limpopo. These provinces collectively inherited 10 Bantustans with their massive structural underdevelopment and education deficits. They have the worst infrastructure, the fewest textbooks, and the lowest ratios of supervisory and support staff. These underlying inequalities (and greater poverty) drive the differential NSC performance. The empty "top" province competition is a distraction from the real work we have to do.
Last, the NSC pass rate is a limited indicator of education health. In 2012 the NDP committed the country to two fundamental goals by 2030: all children in grade 3 must be able to read and write and more learners must achieve above 50% in literacy and mathematics. Are we making progress? In the 2016 "Progress in International Reading Literacy Study" only 22% of our grade 4 children could read for meaning. In the 2015 "Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study", 61% of grade 5 learners could not add and subtract whole numbers. In the 2014 Annual National Assessments conducted by the department of basic education, only 35% of learners in grade 6 achieved 50% in maths.
Let us not be distracted by NSC improvements of one or two percentage points when 46% of learners leave school with no school-leaving certificates, and our primary school performance is haunted by performance figures of 22%, 35%, 50%, and 61%. These are the priority benchmarks to monitor and improve for the urgent educational change our national development depends on.
Change is possible. We must focus on improving literacy and numeracy in the first four years of schooling. This must be programmatic, properly resourced, reach every teacher who needs it, and have clear indicators for success in implementation and in outcomes. These must be regularly monitored, reported timeously, and responded to. Children must have textbooks and books to read for pleasure. All children must learn in a language they understand. School management teams must be empowered to support teachers and learning. District staff must have time to focus on professional and supportive relationships with schools.
The national minister has the power to set norms and standards and hold provincial MECs accountable for the provision of infrastructure (and its maintenance) including libraries and laboratories; class size; the availability of teaching material and equipment; and also for learning performance. Monitoring of key indicators should enable nimble and prompt responses to failures of delivery. The law requires MECs to annually report achievement relative to goals and to table clear plans and programmatic approaches to achieving these incrementally. Senior bureaucrats need to listen more to the professionals working with limited resources to change education in complex situations. They are our greatest resource.
A national consensus on this focused programme of action must be built which has the support of key stakeholders and unites across political divides. Nothing is more urgent.
Metcalfe is associate professor of education at the University of Johannesburg and former MEC for education in Gauteng..

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