ON YOUR MARKS …

The 2018 ma­tric re­sults have been an­nounced, ac­com­pa­nied­with much fan­fare. But it’s worth paus­ing to con­sider the broader chal­lenges fac­ing SA’S school­ing sys­tem

Financial Mail - - FEATURE - Linda En­sor en­[email protected]­nesslive.co.za

Each year, the cel­e­bra­tory at­ten­tion paid to the ma­tric pass rate is met with scep­ti­cism by ed­u­ca­tion spe­cial­ists in SA — and this year was no dif­fer­ent. While ex­perts do not deny that real im­prove­ments are ev­i­dent in the ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, they point to the enor­mous chal­lenges that re­main. They say that fo­cus­ing on the achieve­ments of a few pupils at the apex of the sys­tem gives a dis­torted pic­ture of what is go­ing on be­low. In the view of Jonathan Jansen, pro­fes­sor in Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity’s ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment, this amounts to a “hoax”.

For 2018, the pass rate at pub­lic schools was 78.2%, up from 75.1% in 2017. Of the 512,735 pupils in pub­lic schools who wrote the ma­tric ex­ams — down from 534,484 in 2017 — 400,761 passed. Of these, 172,043, or 33.6%, achieved a bach­e­lor pass, qual­i­fy­ing them to study for a de­gree at univer­sity; 141,700 (27.6%) ob­tained a diploma pass; 86,790 (16.9%) a higher cer­tifi­cate pass; and 99 a na­tional se­nior cer­tifi­cate.

The 2018 ma­tric class achieved 156,885 dis­tinc­tions, a slight de­cline from the 161,081 ob­tained in 2017.

For the 12,372 pupils at in­de­pen­dent or pri­vate schools who sat the In­de­pen­dent Ex­am­i­na­tions Board (IEB) na­tional se­nior cer­tifi­cate exam, the pass rate was 98.92%, up from 98.76% in 2017. A to­tal of 90.65% of those who passed qual­i­fied for en­try to study for a de­gree (up from 88.5%); 7.33% qual­i­fied for en­try to diploma study (down from 8.95%); and 0.95% (1.3% in 2017) achieved en­try for study at the higher cer­tifi­cate level.

But what the pub­lic school fig­ures pro­vided by ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Angie Mot­shekga don’t tell us is that in 2007 just over 1-mil­lion pupils en­tered grade 1. As Nic Spaull, se­nior re­searcher in Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity’s eco­nom­ics de­part­ment, points out, this trans­lates into a “real” pass rate in 2018 of just 40%. The 78.2% fig­ure is based on those pupils who re­mained in the school­ing sys­tem through­out; it dis­counts those who dropped out, failed or trans­ferred to other ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions. It is this re­ten­tion rate, Spaull says, that pro­vides the real mea­sure of the suc­cess or fail­ure of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

“The main thing the drop-out rate is telling us is that these chil­dren are not get­ting a firm foun­da­tion in pri­mary school,” Spaull says. He refers to the “2016 Progress in In­ter­na­tional Read­ing Lit­er­acy Study”, which found that 78% of grade 4 pupils could not read for mean­ing in any lan­guage.

The lat­est “Trends in In­ter­na­tional Math­e­mat­ics & Sci­ence Study” showed about 60% of SA’S grade 5s and about the same per­cent­age of its grade 9s could not do ba­sic math­e­mat­ics.

An­other dis­tort­ing fac­tor, in Spaull’s view, is the “stan­dard­i­s­a­tion” of exam re­sults by Umalusi, the Coun­cil for Qual­ity As­sur­ance in

Gen­eral & Fur­ther

Ed­u­ca­tion & Train­ing. Umalusi ad­justed up­wards the re­sults in 17 sub­jects in the ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment’s ma­tric exam and ad­justed 11 sub­jects down­wards. For the IEB re­sults, eight sub­jects were ad­justed up­wards and eight down­wards.

These ad­just­ments are in­tended to stan­dard­ise and equalise exam re­sults over the years, com­pen­sat­ing for ex­ams that are con­sid­ered harder or eas­ier than those writ­ten be­fore. But be­cause the ad­just­ments are made on the ba­sis of five-year his­tor­i­cal com­par­isons, Spaull says they fac­tor in the re­sults of 112,000 weaker pupils who were pro­gressed in 2015. Stan­dards were low­ered sig­nif­i­cantly to ac­com­mo­date these pupils, he says, and this low­er­ing has rip­pled through to sub­se­quent years.

Jansen high­lights an­other prob­lem: he says prov­inces hold back weak pupils in grades 10 or 11 to beef up their ma­tric pass rates.

Com­pe­ti­tion be­tween prov­inces is fierce. For 2018 Gaut­eng came out on top, with an 87.9% pass rate, fol­lowed by the Free State (87.5%), the West­ern Cape (81.5%), the North West (81.1%), Mpumalanga (79%), Kwazu­lu­na­tal (76.2%), the North­ern Cape (73.3%), the East­ern Cape (70.6%) and Lim­popo (69.4%).

Jansen also flags the low per­cent­age mark re­quired for a pass — 30% in some sub­jects, and 40% in oth­ers. He be­lieves the pass rate should be pegged at 50%.

But the true in­di­ca­tor of the qual­ity of the ma­tric exam, says Jansen, is the high drop-out and fail­ure rates in the first year of univer­sity. (Re­cent first-year drop-out fig­ures are hard to come by, but the de­part­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion in 2015 noted that al­most 50% of univer­sity stu­dents did not com­plete their de­grees.)

Ed­u­ca­tion spe­cial­ists agree that there have been im­prove­ments in ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion. Brahm Fleisch, Wits Univer­sity pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, says over the past 10-15 years, the sys­tem has sta­bilised and is much bet­ter than it was 20 years ago. “Ac­cess has im­proved and there are far greater num­bers of learn­ers sit­ting for the ma­tric exam,” he says. “How­ever, there are still grave con­cerns over qual­ity, which is ev­i­dent in very early years in learn­ing.”

Spaull be­lieves the ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is on the mend and that not all is “doom and gloom”. NGO Equal Ed­u­ca­tion agrees, say­ing there have been “some im­por­tant, al­beit in­cre­men­tal, im­prove­ments over the past few years”.

Ed­u­ca­tion­al­ist Martin Gustafs­son also points to the steep im­prove­ments in read­ing com­pe­ten­cies and in the grasp of the ba­sics of maths and sci­ence.

How­ever, for these gains to ac­cel­er­ate and deepen, SA needs to im­prove the qual­ity of its teach­ers and make sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments in the foun­da­tion phase of ed­u­ca­tion.

The true in­di­ca­tor of the qual­ity of the ma­tric exam is the high drop-out and fail­ure rates in the first year of univer­sity

Daily Dis­patch/madeleine Cha­put

A group of Hud­son Park High School ma­tric­u­lants cel­e­brate af­ter re­ceiv­ing their re­sults

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