Pass rate is not the issue

One of the major weaknesses of South Africa’s now-discarded ­matric qualification, the Senior Certificate, was its diminished value as educational currency. A bunch of F symbols earned you a pass. As a grade 12 learner you did not have to know much, or demonstrate much of what you had learned, to get through.

Even if the symbols allowed entry into a university most tertiary institutions could not rely on what they said about a learner’s ability to succeed and quietly reassessed them with informal methods they had developed over time.

In short, by 2007, the last year the Senior Certificate was written, it had become significantly devalued.

So when the National Senior Certificate, the new school leaving ticket, was conceptualised to replace the senior certificate, it presented a golden opportunity to reclaim lost credibility and status.

With the new system’s first national pass rate of 62,5% just in (but expected to change, with about 57 000 results outstanding) a key question is whether the credibility gap has been closed.
Will the 60-odd percent of matrics who obtained their National Senior Certificates be able to go into the workplace, university and the world and impress with what they know and can do?

Well, not really.

This is not just because the class of 2008 was taught according to the new outcomes-based education curriculum. The problems besetting the education system have always been wider and deeper.

A lower pass rate would, in fact, have been a more credible measure of the education system’s true abilities. For too long the national pass rate has been too high and the complaints from the higher education system and the labour market about the quality of school-leavers drive home the point. A high matric pass rate means little in the context of a 50% failure and dropout rate at university level.

The artificially high rate was, in part, the product of the tremendous pressure on schools to improve their showing during the era of former education minister Kader Asmal. These gains did not translate into real educational benefits for broader society.

Against the backdrop of lessons learned 2008 has to be seen as the baseline for the National Senior Certificate. It was a brand-new exam, and the national and provincial pass rates could not, and should not have been expected to compete with those of previous years.

But commentators have jerked their knees in the same shallow and intellectually lazy reflex, forcing the matric debate to follow the same old line: that a rise in the pass rate is good and a decline is bad.

This has to be challenged. We should stop obsessively asking whether the rate is higher or lower than last year’s. The real question is: do we want a qualification that mirrors the real know-how of school-leavers or an empty paper chase?

Surely we must opt for something that is meaningful in terms of pupils’ life-chances and the good of society. The implication is that the credibility of the new matric will have to be built over time — and this will require some patience. South Africa’s national senior certificate must become a qualification that is sought after by those who don’t have it and respected by those who use it to judge people’s abilities.

Sitting on bayonets
Israel’s hard-line Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has let the cat out of the bag: the Palestinians’ home-made rockets are not the real reason for Israel’s blood-soaked invasion of Gaza. The main purpose is to destroy the Palestinian movement Hamas as a government — despite the fact that it has been democratically elected.

And, as in southern Lebanon in 2006, the Israeli method is collective terror, designed to drive the message home to Gaza’s civilians: ‘Support Hamas at your peril!” There can be no other explanation for the stony-hearted targeting of schools, hospitals, markets and mosques.

To accuse the Palestinians of violating a ceasefire is an exercise in sophistry. Without the opening of the Gaza border crossings the ceasefire was purely notional. Israel’s air, land and sea blockade of more than a million people, bringing many to the brink of starvation, disrupting power and water supplies and paralysing medical services, has been as much an act of war as any rocket or mortar bomb.

The iron lesson of the 20th century, in South Africa and across the former colonial world, is that nationalist aspirations cannot be defeated by force — indeed, violent repression merely fuels them and pushes moderate leaders to the margins. The irony is that when Yasser Arafat and his Fatah were considered the enemy the Israeli security services actively promoted Hamas in a strategy of divide and rule. Now the radical Islamist movement has come to embody the Palestinians’ longing for land, sovereignty and justice.

Driven by the defence chiefs who dominate policy and with one eye on the upcoming elections, Israel’s rulers seem blind to anything but the short term. The inescapable reality is that there can be no lasting peace without an end to the occupation and a viable Palestinian state. Do Israelis really want to — or think they can — sit on bayonets for all eternity?

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