Matric 2013: Between sobering thoughts, hope and a pathologising discourse

​​​Prof. Saartjie Gravett, Executive Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Johannesburg​

It is an annual phenomenon and we are used to it. Matric fever. This time there are some genuine concerns about trends, such as the small number of matriculandi who are ready to take on science and technology at universities, one of the country’s greatest areas of need. There is some hope because the schools at the lower end of performance are decreasing. There is also the tsunami of outcries that, for me, border on a frenzy or almost a hysteria: “We have dropped standards, we are playing with the statistics, the markers are not what they should be, there is no really good news”. In short, the country’s education is sick. To some it is terminally ill.

For the commentators on the ‘sick’ side of the scale there is no hope in the Education SA enterprise and, I notice, there is also no nuance. With these commentators I have little sympathy. They speak with the confidence of established statisticians and educationists, but provide little or no sound evidence for their grande statements. They focus only on one or two aspects or trends, without referring to the bigger picture. For one, I would recommend that they consult the website of Umalusi (the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Training) and read the statement by Prof Sizwe Mabizela, Chair of Umalusi Council, on the occasion of the announcement of approval for the release of the examination results (30 December, 2013). Of course, some of the most repeated comments have been made by those who indulge in politicking and a few months before an election that is an attractive avenue for supporters on different sides of the political spectrum.

There are some sobering facts: we need to move faster and we need to give special attention to the things that bother us all and for which we have evidence. And yes, I agree with Umalusi’s statement that the education system still fails dismally to realize the full potential of the majority of our young people.

In my reading of the comments on Matric 2013 I note that the majority of the debates relate to the minimum requirements for pass, whether the increase in the overall achievement is plausible and what the quality of the education system is. Claims are made that the marking has been flawed. These are all serious issues and we cannot turn a blind eye to them.

Minimum requirements for a matric ‘pass’.

Are the current minimum pass requirements lower than in the past system(s)? No. But, it is also fruitless to make direct comparisons with a past system that differentiated between higher grade, standard grade and lower grade. Should the current requirements be higher? My personal opinion is that they should be. It is symbolically important and in itself may inspire everyone to work harder and more efficiently. If one lifts the bar, teachers and learners will in the long run rise to the challenge. However, more important is, what does 30% mean and what does 50% means in terms of quality? Why we are fixated on the notion that the matriculants should know ‘half’ of what the ‘total’ of knowledge and skills are in any subject? This is an issue that needs to be unpacked very systematically. I am not sure at this stage why it should be 50% specifically. The Minister of Basic Education, Ms Motshekga, has appointed a task team to investigate the issue. Let’s await the report, which will include international benchmarking and then we can have an informed debate.

The proportion of successful candidates

The overall pass rate actually says very little about matric achievement of the system. To get a better understanding, the technical report, diagnostic report, school performance report and subject report, all of which are available on the Department of Basic Education (DBE) website, are useful to bring nuance to one’s interpretation of the results. I am not sure that all the commentators have read these reports. One also needs to look at the spread of marks. How many learners score at the lower levels, how many at the higher levels? How many education districts and schools that have been identified as underperforming in the past are now performing better?

Umalusi’s credibility

I wonder on what basis the Umalusi declaration of the exams as fair, valid and credible is questioned? Umalusi’s Assessment Standards Committee consist of highly respected academics and statisticians. Furthermore, in order to make such an announcement, Umalusi carries out rigorous quality measures, including moderation and approval of question papers; verification of the moderation of internal assessments; monitoring of the conduct of examinations; monitoring of the marking process; verification of marking and standardisation of the results. We should also keep in mind that Umalusi serves as quality assurance board for the Independent Examination Board (IEB) exams. It is interesting that there is no doubt in the air about the magnificent pass rate of the 9500 young people who write this exam.

Long-term interventions in public schools

I have not noted much in the analyses that abound about the provincial departments’ development programmes for underperforming districts and schools, such as the Secondary School Intervention Programme. And I wonder why these programmes and their potential impact seem to be negated by analysts, keeping in mind that countries where there has been successful educational reform (in the developed world) has taken a few decades to show marked progress. Many hours and millions of rands have been spent to support and develop underperforming schools during the past few years. Why are these programmes implemented if the implicit belief is that such programmes will have no impact?

Many universities, such as our own institution, invest many hours and a great deal of human resources and money in school development. UJ’s Faculty of Education, e.g. has been doing successful leadership development with schools in Gauteng and in Mpumalanga.

We have implemented a highly successful intervention programme in an education district in Gauteng, in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the district leadership. We have experienced firsthand the impact on achievement in some of these schools. On the UJ Soweto Campus, the Science Centre reaches thousands of high school learners. The University of the Free State and Kagiso Trust have been doing work in Free State schools. There are numerous other programmes in all provinces, the success of which can be traced in the improved performance of the matriculants in the schools where this work is done.

The markers of exam scripts

Umalusi has highlighted marking as an issue. I think they have a good point when they say that markers should take competency tests. Umalusi notes that markers with inadequate subject knowledge tend to disadvantage top learners, who give original and innovative responses to open-ended questions.

High drop-out rate and limited readiness for higher education

No one can ignore these Achilles heels.

An unacceptable low percentage of those who begin school ultimately pass matric. Some sources indicate a 45% drop-out rate. This puts a big question mark on what happens in schools long before the matric exam.

The National Benchmark Tests used at many universities for gauging learners’ readiness for university study show that many learners who qualify to go to university, are not sufficiently prepared in general academic literacy, quantitative literacy and mathematical literacy. This can only be fixed by years of preparation in school, although universities make a brave effort to support first year students. The successful first year experience programme at UJ testifies to this.

Starting early and unaccepting of mediocrity

Public education is a national asset and, at the other end of the pole, for some, also a national liability. Unlike some of the razor-sharp comments in the media that have portrayed it mainly as a liability and a burden, I see enough progress to give me hope. But I know this hope will become disillusionment if we do not address early education and its teachers, its leaders, and its managers and administrators. The matric exam is the final goal post in 12 years of formal education. It builds on learning and development of young minds over many years. And the foundations are laid in the early years of schooling.

I do not think that we should give in to “celebrating” mediocrity as some claim we do when the increase of passes in a system with low minimum requirements is cast in a positive light. Again, I agree with Umalusi – Average is just not good enough; we must set our sights higher. But, we should acknowledge observable improvement. We should celebrate the school leadership and teachers who are committed, who do their jobs very well, sometimes with poor infrastructure and limited resources in circumstances of socio-economic deprivation. We should celebrate the top performance of young people from township schools and rural schools (no longer only former model C-schools).

So where to go with the preparation of the young of the country – its future citizenry? For sure we must continue with development and support of schools in every way possible and in every partnership that is feasible. But we must also demand accountability from all role-players. We need development, support and, always, accountability.

Above all, we must invest in early years of schooling in the teachers, and the other educational guardians of our young in the foundation phase and the intermediate phase. This is a point also made by Umalusi. Concepts and skills are learned over many years. Education systems are overhauled and improved over many years too.

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