Releasing the 2013 matric results on Monday evening, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's eloquence on the credibility of the 78.2% pass rate lay, unfortunately, in what she did not say rather than in what she did.
Similarly, it was into the gaps she left that we had to peer if we wanted to judge how reliable a measure the national pass rate provides regarding the quality in the school system.
Helpfully, though, she signalled early during her TV extravaganza that it would be more rewarding to listen to her silences than to her words. Ten seconds in, she revealed how pleased she was that she could announce "definite signs of a stabilising education system".
"Stabilising" was the first signal. Motshekga and her predecessors have used this word so many times over so many years about a school system patently crippled by poor quality that its use has moved well beyond cliché to sheer meaninglessness.
"Definite signs" provided the second signal. "Definite"? Education assessment (in any sector, not only schooling) is in reality a minefield of complexity and controversy – one in which the experts themselves move with well-justified caution and carefully weighed nuances.
But there was nary a nuance in sight on Monday night. Aside from a few routine rhetorical gestures, modestly conceding less than divine perfection ("a lot of work is still needed", and the like), her narrative had a fairy-tale simplicity – and a lot of that genre's magical wonder and surrealism too.
The tale was that she inherited a bit of a mess when she became minister in 2009 but, since then, the government's relentless, persistent and tireless efforts (her words) have jet-propelled schooling quality on to a magnificent "upward trajectory".
Her evidence? The first and overriding one was the increase of 17.6 percentage points in the national pass rate since 2009's 60.6% to this year's 78.2%
The silence was nearly deafening: Where was the more nuanced qualification Motshekga expressed when she announced the 2009 results?
Matric 2013: Highs and lows
- 562 112 full-time pupils wrote (only their results are used to calculate the national pass rate), an increase of 50 960 on 2012
- 78.2% of full-time pupils passed;
- 92 611 part-time candidates wrote (up from 81 552 in 2012);
- 30.6% of the full-timers received university-entrance passes (up from 2012’s 26.6%);
- Provincial pass rates in ascending order, with 2012 figures in brackets, are: Eastern Cape 64.9% (61.4%), Limpopo 71.8% (66.9%), Northern Cape 74.5% (74.6%), KwaZulu-Natal 77.4% (73.1%), Mpumalanga 77.6% (70%), Western Cape 85.1% (82.8%), Gauteng 87% (83.9%), North West 87.2% (79.5%) and Free State 87.4% (81.1%);
- 59.1% of full-time pupils passed maths (54% in 2012);
- 67.4% of full-time pupils passed physical science (61.3% in 2012);
- For the first time, none of the country’s 81 school districts achieved less than a 50% pass rate; and
- Gauteng’s Sedibeng East district was top, with a 90.7% pass rate.
Matric results are "an important indicator of quality" in the whole system, but we need to place equal emphasis on teaching and learning in the earlier grades as well, she said then. "We cannot only sit up and pay attention" or "begin to concern ourselves" when pupils approach matric, she added.
This sensibly acknowledged that the quality of the system as a whole simply cannot be measured reliably by the matric pass rate. But this week, mere silence on the matter: Why?
An equally suggestive silence lay in Motshekga's breathtaking attempt to dismiss the most scandalous reality of South African education – quality for the rich, mediocrity for the poor.
"Contrary to what some would like the nation and the public to believe – that our results hide inequalities – the facts and evidence show that the top two provinces, Free State and North West, are rural and poor," she said.
The silence here was vast, but two points only must suffice. First, among those who persuasively argue that pass rates are unreliable by themselves is, as it happens, Umalusi, the state's own quality assurer.
"We must guard against any obsession with pass rates, which hide more than they reveal," Umalusi chairperson Sizwe Mabizela said last week. "We must acknowledge that we have an education system that still fails dismally to realise the full potential of the majority of our young people."
And Mabizela didn't need to add that the majority is indeed poor and predominantly rural or peri-urban.
Second, in the 700 pages of data Motshekga's department released on the results, one table provides the "unsaid" in the minister's assertion. It shows that vastly more poor schools achieved pass rates of between 0% and 70% than richer schools did, and that by far the greater concentration of the richer schools' pass rates was in the 80% to 100% category. Equality? No.
Fewer maths pupils
On maths and science, where Umalusi's considered view was that "the majority of learners still perform at lower levels", Motshekga chose rather to tell us that the pass rates in both subjects were higher this year than in 2012.
The unsaid? About 50 000 fewer pupils wrote maths in 2013 than in 2009; and about 48 000 fewer enrolled for physical science in 2013 than in 2009.
Another deafening silence concerned the part-time candidates. There were more than 92 000, a whoppingly significant number relative to the 562 112 full-timers.
The unsaid? Motshekga had nothing to say about them, presumably because their results are not used to calculate the pass rate.
But among the 700 pages of data, again there was a single table suggesting a bloodbath among these unfortunate 92 000 pupils: based merely on the (incomplete) figures the table provided, nearly 60% appear to have failed.
Well, it is an election year and Motshekga has a lot of face-saving to do – remember Limpopo textbooks? But for a more complete triumph of political over educational interests, her Monday TV show will take some beating.