/ 30 May 2014

New matric: a sure way to fail ejected pupils

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

The amendments that the basic education department has proposed to the senior certificate (as the matric curriculum and examination were formally called before 2008) reflect a position that is illogical, shortsighted and unprincipled.

The department’s intention is to reach young people who have been extruded from the public school system. These are pupils who have failed the national senior certificate (NSC: the formal name of the “new” matric introduced in 2008) or failed the senior certificate (SC) before 2008, dropped out of school for financial or other reasons, or have been encouraged to enrol at public adult learning centres, rather than stay in school as weak candidates – on the grounds that they’d hereby compromise the quest for ever-rising percentages of “matric passes”.

This proposal would reinstate an old, outdated qualification that is of no real value to the young people, or to genuine adult candidates. It is a really bad idea.

It is also illogical, in that the very reasons for developing the new NSC to replace the old SC are ignored. If the new NSC was created precisely because it was meant to be better than the old SC, then surely forcing young people, who exit school having studied the new NSC curriculum, to write an out-of-date curriculum is bizarre.

No maths
This proposal will create a new and second-class qualification. Of note is that, in spite of all the insistence that either maths or maths literacy is compulsory in the NSC, this requirement for numeracy does not exist in the proposed amended SC. So this intended structure will not get successful pupils into higher education degree studies. Nor is there any evidence that the amended SC would adequately prepare pupils for any other higher education studies, such as at certificate or diploma levels.

Surely elementary logic suggests that a better mechanism for young people who have left school with an incomplete secondary education is to write the NSC – the examination only, without a compulsory school-based assessment component – and to provide proper resources for them to study. After all, in 2013 only 3 811 pupils passed of the 159 690 pupils who entered the SC examination!

As is well known, the majority of pupils studying in ever-growing numbers at public adult learning centres for the SC are not “adults” but young people extruded from the schooling system. Many are aged between 16 and 21, so the proposed age restriction – that only those 18 and above could write the SC – is ridiculous and contradictory to the stated purpose of the amendments.

The recent approval of a ­genuine adult matric examination, the National Senior Certificate for Adults (Nasca), is now being compromised – in its curriculum, programmatic development and potential funding – by the SC proposal. The Nasca examination was properly designed for adults, not for schoolchildren.

What is in the SC?
Indeed, the stated reasons for introducing the recycled SC are precisely those drawn from the considerations developed for Nasca. If amended, this SC would:

  • “Provide adult pupils with a basic education that will allow them to participate in economic, social and political activities with a level of confidence appropriate to this level”;
  • “Enable pupils an opportunity to participate in life-long learning”;
  • “Provide opportunities for pupils to gain skills that will enable them to have access to the world of work”; and
  • “Provide opportunities for access into higher education.”

Yet there is no evidential support for tying the SC to all these objectives. The first objective does not spell out what these SC pupils will be able to do in the economic, social and political arenas. Nor does it specify the appropriate level of confidence, which in truth may be zero. The second objective is sound but vague, and it carries no connotation of life-long quality (merely participation).

What positions wait for them?
The third objective does not even postulate the skills that will allegedly make a difference to their access to work. Under what conditions would the basic education department commit to employ a candidate with a pass in this SC, ahead of a candidate with an NSC, or ahead of a candidate with a pass in the new curriculum (known as Caps) that is still being phased in? Into what sort of position?

The old SC will in fact provide little to support these laudable objectives. The idea that it will give a second chance to youth who did write the old SC (prior to 2008) is misleading. By now, six or more years later, they will have lost all vital connection with the learning they undertook at school and they might as well start with a properly designed Nasca.

For youth who have recently failed the NSC, the obvious solution is to allow them for a suitable period (say, three years) to rewrite the NSC, and to provide conventional or new modes of support.

These proposals are unprincipled in that they are a way of avoiding accountability for the dysfunctionality and high dropout rate from secondary schools, while at the same time wanting to have ever better “matric results”.

The substance of these proposals may emerge as having a further hurdle to address. It is clear that the Constitution envisages an incontrovertible obligation on the state, and hence the basic education department, to provide effective and equal education to all. The department is inviting challenges in the Constitutional Court – if these proposals are enacted.

A more considered and direct approach to the causes of educational failure and dropout would serve the nation and the department better than this SC masquerade of equality of opportunity with the NSC and Caps.

John Aitchison is professor emeritus (adult education), University of KwaZulu-Natal. This is an edited version of his response to the department of basic education’s recent invitation for public comment on the proposed amendments to the policy document, A Résumé of Subjects for the Senior Certificate, in terms of the National Education Policy Act of 1996