Part-time students, full-time cheats: How information blackout damns matrics

The information blackout about part-time matric candidates could make it more difficult to crush future cheating scandals and to help desperate young people get an education. But press coverage and departmental statements about the 2014 matric cheating scandal have failed to recognise this.

“It’s almost common knowledge among people that there is a lot of cheating going on, group copying, at these [part-time] centres. It’s anecdotal evidence, hearsay, but I’m pretty sure cheating is rife in these centres,” John Aitchison, University of KwaZulu-Natal emeritus professor of adult education, said on Tuesday.

He served on the standardisation committee of the state’s education quality assurance and monitoring body, Umalusi, for a decade until last year.

“When I was working for Umalusi, I argued that part-timers’ exams needed to be monitored much more closely.”

Dearth of information
Last year, 532 860 full-time and 94 884 part-time pupils wrote matric. Most of the part-timers write exams in designated centres. Their results are not reflected in schools’ or national pass rates and, as the Mail & Guardian reported last week, were mentioned in only about five pages of more than 900 in publicly released basic education departmental documents about the 2014 matric exams.

These part-timers have either been forced out of schools because of personal problems or because they are victims of the “gatekeeping” tactic employed by schools to register poor-performing pupils as part-timers to avoid them bringing down pass rates.

Each year, another group of part-timers write exams, but for the old curriculum, the senior certificate, in May and June at state-funded public adult learning centres. It is these centres that Aitchison said have sparked concerns about cheating, at least since 2013 and particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

“The 2013 results [given to Umalusi by the department] for those pupils who had written the full suite of subjects, so, six subjects, [showed] the percentage of those … who passed and the results for each province. The average was 33% but KwaZulu-Natal got 54%. That is extraordinarily high and raised eyebrows,” he said.

Group cheating, ghost writing
Umalusi’s chief executive, Mafu Rakometsi, said the results of 153 of more than 350 of the centres in the province “were declared null and void” last year “because there was cheating throughout”.

He said it took different forms including group cheating, where answers were written on a board or dictated to the group, and “ghost writing”, where someone other than the registered candidate wrote the exams.

Earlier this month, the department launched an investigation into full-time and part-time pupils who allegedly cheated in the 2014 exams – more than 5 000 pupils in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape have been implicated – as well as into the teachers serving as exam invigilators and the principals responsible for the centres. The report will be released to Umalusi by the end of the month.

Its council chairperson, John Volmink, said “initial reports [about this group] show that part-time pupils appeared to be implicated”.

“There is one part-time centre that has been implicated that had about 300 pupils in it.”

Deserving of greater attention
He said part-timers were probably more desperate than other pupils and more likely to cheat, “because they might not have received proper tuition during the year”.

Part-timers constituted “a sizeable percentage of people who write matric”, he said, “and I do think we should give them more structured and quality attention, both in terms of the chances they have to succeed and the conditions they write their exams in”.

Referring to the lack of information about part-timers, Rakometsi said the department was “constrained”, because “they don’t sit for all the subjects at once”, which made it difficult to give figures, such as for the pass rate.

“The department might be facing challenges that you and I can’t appreciate.”

But it was possible to work out the pass rate for some subjects, he said.

“I think it will be a good thing to get more information [about part-timers].”

The experts had no clear answers about how long both full-time and part-time pupils had been cheating.

Unprecedented scale
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said in her January 5 speech, announcing the pass rate, that “… in 2014, we experienced a strange phenomenon for the first time of group copying …”

But Aitchison said “people have been talking for a long time about this happening across the board”.

Volmink said it might have been happening before but “this scale is unprecedented”.

Rakometsi said Umalusi had never detected it before. “If it was detected, it was never reported to Umalusi.”

The reason for the sudden increase in reports of cheating is not known.

“Why is it suddenly happening on such a massive scale? … That is a question we have to ask ourselves,” Rakometsi said. “I honestly don’t know.”

The basic education department did not respond to questions.

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