Motshekga sows confusion about pushing up pupils

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshegka's policy on advancing pupils who do not pass grades is causing confusion. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshegka's policy on advancing pupils who do not pass grades is causing confusion. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

On Monday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga told the nation that some of 2014’s matric pupils were the first to be promoted to grade 12 despite having failed their grade 11 year.

This was in accordance with current policy, which “addressed quality and efficiency”.

But in a Government Gazette issued on November 25, she proposed reversing this policy to only allow pupils to progress to the next grade if they met promotion requirements.

Education experts say the proposal would provide schools with another reason to fail poorly performing pupils in an attempt to secure better overall matric pass rates.

Announcing the 2014 matric pass rate in Johannesburg, Motshekga said the basic education sector was “on the right trajectory of addressing quality and efficiency”.

“The first group of grade 11 learners who were progressed without having met promotion requirements has gone through. It would be unwise to blame the underperformance in some subjects in [matric] on these learners.”

Period for comment closed
As policy now stands, a pupil may “only be retained once in the [grades 10, 11 and 12] phase in order to prevent the learner being retained in this phase for longer than four years”.

But in the Government Gazette, Motshekga announced her intention to amend this to read: “A learner may only be progressed in the [grades 10, 11 and 12] phase, provided that such a learner has met the [current promotion] requirements.”

The period open for comment on the proposal closed in mid-December and her department has made no further announcements.

On Tuesday, Ursula Hoadley, an associate professor in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) school of education, said the benefit to pupils of repeating grades, especially in the higher grades, was questionable.

“The quality of teaching and learning in South Africa is low and so is our remediation support offered to pupils who fail. If you make kids repeat in grades 10 to 11 in South Africa, they are not going to learn much more.
It is better to let pupils progress to the next grade in the hopes that they acquire at least some new skills.”

Failure linked to high dropout rate
She said research at UCT showed that about 30% of pupils repeated grades 10 and 11, which resulted more often in dropout than it did in the successful completion of matric down the line.

“After being held back a year or more, the opportunity cost of staying in schools grows. 

“There are a variety of push factors that cause pupils to drop out, among them pressure to find employment, the cost of uniforms and transport, as well as falling out of their age cohort.

“Without academic and social support and encouragement in the school, many lose faith and give up.”

Obsession with pass rates
Pressure from the department on schools to achieve ever-better matric pass rates has resulted in many of them employing tactics to exclude pupils who might get poor marks and bring down the school’s overall pass rate.

Tactics include “gatekeeping” pupils, a method used by schools to fail weaker pupils, which would increase if the promotion policy is changed. Another is registering weaker pupils as part-time candidates. Their results are not used to calculate the pass rate. This year, the number of part-time candidates who wrote matric was 94 884, an increase from 92 611 in 2013. The number of full-time pupils who wrote it was 532 860.

Making pupils repeat grades also places constraints on resources.

“Schools can’t bloat class sizes anymore. Teachers can’t cope with such big class sizes.”

The solution lies at the foundation phase
Hoadley said the department was in a difficult position because keeping the policy as it was would result in some pupils reaching matric and not having the skills they needed to pass their exams.

“But the problem of students reaching higher grades without requisite knowledge and skills cannot be addressed through increasing repetition. It needs to be addressed by improving the quality of teaching and learning right from the foundation phase.”

Basil Manuel, the president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said the obvious downside of the policy, which allowed pupils to fail only once in a phase, was that underprepared pupils, particularly in subjects such as mathematics, technology, life sciences and geography, which depended on prior knowledge to build on, were promoted without having the requisite skills.

“Teachers have to put in much more work for these learners as they require a lot of support …”

But the upside of the policy was that “it moves people through the system steadily. How much does it benefit a child who is academically challenged to fail and fail again?”

Address the entire system
If the policy was amended, he said, the tactic used by schools to “gate keep” pupils might increase.

“It is a human rights violation … The current policy will certainly limit this practice,” he said.

But he did not believe that the department had the capacity “to monitor all schools to ensure that they don’t just fail pupils numerous times in a phase, anyway, and in spite of the current policy”.

He also said the proposed amendments “stood in a silo”.

If the policy was changed so that pupils could only progress on merit then pupils, such as those with special needs, would need to be considered before this happened. The effect on children needing special education “would be devastating”, he said.

“They are the ones that drop out first. The department creates policies in silos. When one speaks about pass requirements, one should address the entire system.”

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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