Pressure is being put on failing matrics to forgo writing to massage the pass rate, say educators.
With matric exams due to start in less than two weeks, pupils at three Gauteng schools have told the Mail & Guardian that their schools are forcing them not to write papers in their weaker subjects.
This appears to be a bid by the schools to massage their pass rates, because pupils who do not write exams in all their grade 12 subjects are classified as "part time".
The results of part-timers are not used to calculate matric pass rates at any level – school, provincial or national – even when the pupils concerned have attended school full time in grade 12.
"They have forced me to drop three subjects I didn't pass during the trial examination," said a pupil at Siyaphambili High School in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg.
"I might not have done well in the trial exams, but that is no guarantee I'll fail them in the final. It's only fair to give me a chance."
Pupils at the nearby Vutomi and Isikhumbuzo high schools, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, had similar stories to tell. All three are low-cost independent schools that elect to write the public matric exam.
Five enraged Vutomi pupils said 44 of the school's 96 full-time matrics were now "part-time" candidates. A Siyaphambili pupil said "16 or 17" in her class of 25 were being treated in this way, and Isikhumbuzo pupils estimated that more than 20 of 58 pupils were similarly affected.
"They want us to make it look as if we were sick [on the day of an exam]. They have forced our parents to agree to it," said a Siyaphambili pupil.
With tears in her eyes, a girl from Isikhumbuzo said she was told on Wednesday last week that she would not write two subjects. "They'll make you [produce] a doctor's note that you were sick," she said.
Another Isikhumbuzo pupil said the school's management had told selected matrics it could not risk allowing non-performers to tarnish the school's pass rate. Of the 35 who wrote last year, 83% passed.
"They are fighting to achieve 100%," she said. "They must give us a chance because they don't know how we'll perform in the final."
Matrics at Vutomi said the school's management threatened that they would not be allowed to write at all if they refused to register as part-timers.
"I've been in school the whole year and also passed all subjects in grade 11, but now I'm told I'm part-time. Is that fair?" asked a Vutomi pupil.
Registering pupils who have been attending school the entire year as part-time candidates is "illegal", said Mafu Rakometsi, the chief executive of Umalusi, the state's matric exam quality assurer.
"Even in independent schools, the government is paying subsidies for those learners to be full-time. Where provincial education departments detect this kind of anomaly, they are supposed to deal with it accordingly," he said.
The Orange Farm schools are not members of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa, whose director, Jane Hofmeyr, "condemned" such practices as "unethical and illegal".
But the country's "very low-fee, independent schools serving significantly disadvantaged learners" are "under enormous pressure to … meet the average provincial pass rate every year to continue to receive a subsidy", she said.
Last year, Gauteng's overall pass rate was 83%, but only 17% of Vutomi High's 87 matrics passed.
However, the school's principal, Nicholas Hama, and its manager, Alpheus Mokhalabane, denied any pupils were being forced to write part time.
Mokhalabane said the school would not resort to "such desperate measures" to ensure a dramatically improved pass rate. But he went on to say that some pupils had, indeed, been registered as part-timers because of poor performance: "They passed with low marks in grade 11. What are we going to do with learners who can't pass matric?"
The pupils and their parents had consented to this, Mokhalabane said.
The education department contradicted this account. Following receipt of the M&G's questions, senior officials in the department had visited all three schools, said Gauteng education department spokesperson Gershwin Chuenyane.
"The school [Vutomi] alleges that 47 learners have chosen to write five subjects despite departmental records indicating that all 47 of them are registered to write all seven subjects," Chuenyane said."The department has instructed the school to ensure that all 47 candidates write all subjects as per registration and according to their timetables.
Mduduzi Tshuma, the principal of Isikhumbuzo, said it was "news" to him that some of his pupils would not write all papers.
"Maybe what caused panic [among pupils] is that I called learners who were not performing well to come to my office with their parents after the trial exams [in October]. I do this all the time, [and] I don't mince my words that you need to work hard in this or that subject."
Here, the department found a picture different to the one painted by pupils.
"All learners are registered as full-time candidates, except for seven who are repeaters and are to write between two and three subjects," Chuenyane said.
Siyaphambili principal Sibusiso Makhanya did not answer phone calls or respond to the M&G's hand-delivered request at the school this week to communicate with the paper.
Of this school, the department claimed: "All learners are registered as full-time candidates except for one repeater candidate."
Analysing last year's matric results, rights organisation Equal Education said the 73.9% pass rate did not account for thousands lost to education.
"Some schools resort to 'gaming' the system by pushing poor performing learners out of the system in order to protect their school's pass rate. Learners may also be moved from full-time to part-time candidates," it said.
But Chuenyane said: "No learners or parents [at the Orange Farm schools] have reported such a problem to the district office since the beginning of the year."
The M&G reported in December 2011 concern in Parliament's basic education portfolio committee about the large year-on-year increase in part-time candidates. The number shot up from 39 351 in 2009 to 108 237 in 2011.
The number increased to 130 000 this year, Umalusi announced at a press conference on Tuesday. A total of 707 136 candidates have registered for the 2013 matric exams. Low-fee schools serving disadvantaged learners are under pressure to meet the provincial pass average