The government's trashing of anyone who dares to ask what matric pass rates reliably signify about schooling quality is by now a well-established political tradition.
It stretches back to one of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's more gifted predecessors, Kader Asmal (minister from 1999 to 2004): his formidable intellect and scathingly articulate tongue turned such trashing into something of a fine if unconstructive art.
We invoke this history urgently now in order to understand why 2013's all-time high 78.2% matric pass rate has sparked such widespread incredulity – and, further, to suggest that this scepticism is solidly justified.
Exactly 10 years ago, in January 2004, Asmal announced a then all-time high matric pass rate: 2003's 73.3%. Public disbelief of the kind we have seen this week erupted, plunging the whole school system into a crisis of credibility.
Despite the concrete and multiple improvements in quality since then, for which Motshekga can indeed take credit, we now have a similar crisis. As in 2004, it boils down to this: how much trust and confidence does the public have in state schooling?
To answer this, we cannot allow ourselves to remain trapped within the parameters of Motshekga's party-political broadcast on TV and radio set this week – the one on Monday night that masqueraded as a speech about education. Her shallow historical narrative centred on the ever-increasing pass rate since she took over in 2009. But, just in case anyone had still failed to get the political point about where the credit lies for all this wondrously sky-high quality, Motshekga then hammered it home (artfully disguised as a query): "The key question remains, though: Why have we improved performance so well over the past four to five years?" (italics added).
In other words: the 2013 matric accomplishments originate wholly from the Zuma administration's accession to power in 2009. Simple. However, this is not only politically dangerous complacency: it is also educationally absurd.
Most of the 2013 cohort began school in 2002. This means they spent more of their 12 years at school – at least their first seven – under Motshekga's two predecessors than under her: first Asmal, then Naledi Pandor.
It is hardly news to say that the foundations laid in the early grades comprise among the most powerful determinants of success in the later grades. So where are the grounds for Motshekga's claim?
Far more objectionably, her narrative of self-congratulation ignored volumes of serious research we now have, but little of which existed when Asmal was minister. This research exposes a huge range of desperate, often illegal and always unethical measures to which officials at all levels, particularly in schools and districts, resort so as to "engineer" high pass rates. These include weeding out before grade 12 those pupils expected to fail matric: by far the highest dropout rate during 12 schooling years occurs after grade nine.
Another is to register weaker pupils as part-time candidates. The results of these pupils are not used to calculate a school's, a district's, a province's or the country's pass rate – indeed, their results get little attention at all. As we note elsewhere in this edition, though, the tiny particles of information on their performance released this week suggest a 40% pass rate.
To these pupils must be added those who fail – this year, more than 122 000. Yes, they can write supplementary exams, but one of the less-publicised statistics here is how well they do (no TV show for them). In May last year, Motshekga's department very quietly released figures suggesting that only 23% of those who wrote the 2013 supplementary exams passed.
And there is yet another marginalised group we must add: those who pass without university-entrance results – about 70% of the 2013 cohort. Yet, as we report this week, pupils themselves regard such a pass as effective failure.
All this (and more) data, and such practices, are perfectly well known to Motshekga and the government – indeed, much of it can be found on the department's own website. Is it any wonder, then, that – before she even began her matric speech – an avalanche of sceptical analyses was published in weekend media? This scepticism precisely echoed that which the public itself angrily expressed back in January 2004, because – rightly – they found Asmal's enormous increases in the pass rate simply not believable.
Pandor's ministry restored a measure of education realism: the pass rate dropped from 70.7% in 2004 to 63.2% in 2008. She took plenty of flak as a result, but for experts such figures more accurately reflected schooling's real levels of quality than Asmal's implausible highs.
Now, however, we are back to those heights – and public incredulity has inevitably followed. This is dangerous: What happens when the public at large stops trusting public schooling?
One dismal answer is that those who can afford it will send their children to quality private or a few high-fee-charging elite public schools. But the rest – the majority – will remain marooned in mediocrity.
With this week's trashing and demonising of critics in mind, we repeat: schooling certainly now offers higher quality to more pupils than ever before.
But, by massively and crudely overstating these gains, Motshekga and the administration she loyally serves have unwittingly manufactured a political time bomb: in effect, they have denied the huge education-quality gap between rich and poor and so ensured it will widen. Can we expect a rethink from them?