A closer look at the 2014 matric results

Professor Adam Habib of the University of the Witwatersrand believes that with our present system, the shortage of professionals will keep growing

Professor Adam Habib of the University of the Witwatersrand believes that with our present system, the shortage of professionals will keep growing

The last few weeks has raised much discussion and debate over the 2014 matric results. The drop of 2.4% in the pass rate is being blamed on a number of factors ranging from the new Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (Caps) and the merging of Maths Paper 3 with Papers 1 and 2 to the new Policy of Progression in which a pupil can only be failed once in the grade 10–11 phase of schooling.

While all of these things may be contributing factors, despite the drop, matriculants of 2014 still achieved a 75.8% pass rate. To many people this does not actually sound too bad. But one must ask if this figure really is a true reflection of our education system, or are we simply failing to see the bigger picture?

Of the 75.8% that passed in 2014, only 28% achieved a bachelor or uni- versity pass. In order to get a bachelor pass a student needs an average of 50% in four subjects. That means that only 28% of people managed to get this average of 50% in four subjects, which also means that the remainder of our matriculants scored below 50% in most of their subjects. We seem to be so focused on the quantity of passes, but what about the quality? While we may be seeing an increase in the number of matriculants, at the expense of quality passes, one must ask what this is going to mean for us as a nation five to 10 years from now?

Shortages of professionals

According to Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits): “We must start by asking the question, what are we producing? It seems that the minister [of higher education] is right about one thing; we should not simply be producing graduates from the schooling sys- tem for the university system. We need to be able to produce them for the market, as well as for other sectors of society. We are focusing on a broader set of needs. Having said that, I do think 28% of people quali- fying for university is too small an amount.” 

Habib went on to add that of the 28% who got bachelor passes, on average at least 55% will drop out of university, which means that only approximately 13% of school leavers will graduate. In effect this means that our country will face a shortage of professionals in time to come. “These numbers mean that we will ultimately add to the shortage of specific skills we are already facing, and this shortage will only grow,” says Chantyl Mulder, senior execu- tive for professional development, transformation and growth at the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica).

Taking the statistics into consideration, it can then be said that while a bachelor pass may earn you a spot in university, it does not necessarily mean that you are adequately pre- pared for university. Mulder believes that schools “absolutely do not” prepare students for university. It can’t be denied that “there are pockets of excellence but [overall] we have dismally failed our children”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) agrees; according to a press release issued by them “students who pass with a low percentage do not know the majority of the content they were taught and cannot be fully prepared for tertiary training”.

People are beginning to fear that universities may also begin to drop standards in order to escalate graduate numbers. Dr Craig Pournara, senior lecturer in maths education at the Wits School of Education, does not think this is likely to happen. “I cannot comment for all universities, but it is unlikely that universities with good international reputations will tolerate lowering of standards so that students can succeed.” Instead, he believes that, the issue is more about helping students who arrive under prepared to cope with univer- sity demands. “This will mean uni- versities have to provide more aca- demic support to more students. This would likely include maths/ numeracy and would also include helping students develop their ability to read, comprehend and write academic texts.”

Returning to the fact that attending a university is not the only option after matric, yet another issue arises. According to Habib: “If the remainder of our matriculants really achieved below 50%, even if they were not going to university, getting below 50% means that you do not have the skill set to competitively compete and to provide the kinds of human resources we require in an economy that is competitive with the global economy in the 21st century.

“If they have less than 50% how will they perform as good artisans? Which is an even bigger concern. We need good carpenters and mechanics. Forget about not producing enough doctors or lawyers, we will not even be producing good artisans.”

A typical example of what we may expect in the future is Eskom. “Eskom is a result of bad choices made six or seven years ago. If we don’t get our schooling system right we are going to pay the conse- quences. I really am worried about both sides of the divide, as our schooling system is doubly problematic,” says Habib.

Gerrie van Biljon, executive director at Business Partners Limited, agrees that education has a direct impact on the current skills shortage in various areas of the local economy. But he believes that the challenges present in the sector provide opportunities for existing and aspiring entrepreneurs to meet the growing need to improve and expand the sector. “Entrepreneurs have the opportunity to provide facilities and services to aspiring pupils and thereby increase the country’s knowledge and skillset base. Specialist training is becoming an attractive option and entrepre- neurs can satisfy this growing need by offering either short or long specialty courses.”

Perhaps it is time for us as a nation to stop pointing fingers as the situation worsens and instead step in and try to make some sort of a contribution. Education and improvement of skill levels is the responsibility of all, says Van Biljon. “Education does not stop with government. Other role players, namely trade unions, the business sector and industry representatives should all make some contribution.”

Saica too believes that: “Improving the quality of matric results requires the involvement and commitment of pupils, parents, teachers, school governing bodies and government to ensure that the country produces high quality matric pupils.”

We seem to have become obsessive over the percentages when it comes to the pass rate, on government and schools to produce numbers. By doing this we fail to realise that we are creating even more problems. The preoccupation with pass rates rather than quality of passes means that many teachers are focusing on ensuring as many pupils as possible reach the pass mark, says Pournara. “They are pressurised into this by provincial departments and their school leadership.”

He warns that this comes at the cost of giving the top pupils exposure to tougher questions as teachers teach each section. “This means that capable pupils may not be able to cope with the challenging questions in the exams, and this is not because they don’t have the ability, it’s because they haven’t had enough exposure to them.”

Pournara further points out that: “While some will argue that teachers don’t do the harder work because they can’t do the hard questions themselves, this is not necessarily the case. We have worked with teachers for five years in the Wits Maths Connect Secondary Project who are clearly capable but who get pressurised into focusing on those who are failing, rather than on the pupils who are coping better but need to be stretched.”

On the other hand it seems that more pupils achieve large numbers of distinctions in comparison to the past. We may then ask if this is due to the result of exams becoming eas- ier over the years, in an attempt to help students pass?

According to the chairperson of Umalusi Council, Professor John Volmink, in a non-racist, non-sexist, democratic system we should expect more people to participate in educa- tion and therefore also more people who pass at all levels. “As a quality assuring body it is the responsibility of Umalusi to ensure that the value of an A pass in mathematics in 2014 should have the same meaning as an A five years hence.”

While there are more distinctions in absolute terms now than was the case two decades ago, he says that the percentage of distinctions has not increased radically. Umalusi, according to Volmink has “well-established, rigorous and robust procedures that provide assurance that all pupils receive appropriate recognition for their performance in line with agreed national standards”.

Umalusi quality assures the examinations of all the assessment bodies, including the Independent Examinations Board (IEB), and applies the same standardisation and other procedures to the various examinations.

“In the execution of its responsibilities Umalusi understands that at times it has to make unpopular decisions, but in the final analysis we exist to make a contribution to the quality of education in our country. So when we quality assure the work of the various assessment bodies, we are sharing and applying standards and expectations in the hope that in the process these standards and expectations will themselves be raised. We are not there yet, but we are well on our way towards an assessment system that is line with the very best internationally,” says Volmink.

Teachers are often blamed for not making enough effort in the class- room or for not being adequately qualified for their positions but Pournara believes that the situation is more complex: “The majority of pupils in the country develop backlogs in their learning of maths, and the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) provide evidence of this right from Foundation Phase. The challenge that all teachers face is in dealing with pupils’ backlogs and still continuing to cover the grade-appropriate content. This is a mammoth task and we don’t know much about how to do this, particularly in large, multilingual classes with limited resources.”

Perhaps it would be a good idea for us to take some advice from schools writing the IEB exam, as they clearly seem to know what they are doing. Not only did they have an average of 1.43 distinctions per person and a 98.38% pass rate, but 85.45% achieved bachelor passes in comparison to the 28% achieved in state schools. While some may argue that comparing the two would be like comparing apples to oranges, it doesn’t hurt to look at why their sys- tem actually works.

According to Anne Oberholze, chief executive of the IEB, a successful education system depends on three key elements:

• Pupils who are prepared to work hard;

• Parents who are prepared to give the school and their children all the support they need to develop successful students; and

• A teaching community committed to providing a quality educational experience for all pupils.

“These three elements create a learning community. When the will to succeed and do well is there, a learning community will overcome the obstacles.”

Language in learning is another key issue, says Oberholze. “Without a solid base in language, a pupil will constantly battle to understand concepts and communicate their learning. In the Foundation and Intermediate phases, the focus must be on language acquisition, using content areas of the curriculum as the vehicle through which to develop language skills.

“It is through discussion and expres- sion of opinions that children learn that a command of language is not an end in itself, but a vehicle through which an individual establishes their uniqueness. And that is the key to becoming an ‘educated person’.”

The Democratic Alliance (DA) suggests that:

• Competency tests should be implemented for entry to the profession and on a regular basis to ensure that knowledge keeps pace with curriculum developments;

• We should start focusing on the first three years of schooling, which are critical. Research has shown that by the end of grade three [many of] our children have fallen behind the numeracy and literacy levels expected of them;

• Everyone involved in education should strive for excellence, as mediocrity cannot suffice.

Habib also believes that to have a successful education system we need to go back to the basics. “I think we get so enamoured by the curriculum that we don’t do the basics. If you want to fix education you need to do four things:

• Students need to be in the class;

• Teachers need to be in the class; 

• Teachers need to know what they are teaching; and

• The infrastructure needs to work. “If you drive past township schools you will see students at 11am sitting outside. No one is in the classrooms and even if they are, infrastructure is often a problem in these schools. We need to stop rewriting the curricu- lum and focus on getting the basics right. If you don’t get the basics right you will never be world class.”

According to the DA, only once the department of basic education starts addressing these inequalities in our schools will South Africa finally see an improvement in the most crucial indicators of quality education. “The 2014 matric results tell the story of an unequal education system under extreme pressure, with the poorer provinces and schools performing worse than the affluent.” It says 23% of the total bachelor passes were pro- duced by schools considered more affluent.

Habib said there is complexity and incoherence in the entire education plan, which is the biggest cause for concern. “The minister’s emphasis on upgrading quality is important, as well as increasing the quality of the pass mark and working towards making exams more complex, while pushing students more. But at the same time she says that you can’t fail more than once, all on the principle of equality. While we are creating a more equal society, we mustn’t create a dumbed-down society.”

According to Mulder, who is disappointed at the pass rate in maths and accounting, mathematics is a gateway to key professions such as accounting, engineering, com- merce and science, so we need to encourage and support our pupils to study mathematics and aim for good results. Of the 225 458 pupils who wrote mathematics, a mere 53% passed.

“Quality is a big concern, as the pass-mark is 30%,” adds Mulder. “Also of concern is the steady decline of the number of pupils who take up mathematics, as most pupils are opting for mathematics literacy.” She warns that while pupils take the easier maths literacy option, hoping to achieve a better matric by doing this, they dramatically reduce their options for further study and employment.

Pournara believes that: “We need to give far more attention to the teaching of maths at all levels of secondary school, possibly more at grades eight and nine than at any other level of secondary school.

Unless we have more pupils coping well with grade nine maths, we will not be able to increase the number of pupils who can reasonably choose maths rather than maths literacy for grade 12.”

Pournara warns that the hype surrounding the drop in marks in mathematics and overall pass rate from 2013 to 2014 does not keep the bigger picture in perspective. In a table he provided he points out that the maths pass rate is very similar in 2012 and 2014. The number of pupils who wrote maths is also similar.

Analysing the table, one can see that there is a general upward trend from 2008 to 2014, with noticeably “big” jumps in 2012 (54%) and in 2013 (59.1%) then a “big” drop in 2014 (53.5%). “Perhaps it would be more reasonable to question the big jumps from 2011 to 2013? Perhaps these numbers are unrealistic,” says Pournara.

He believes that the drop in 2014 takes us back to something more reasonable. “It is not normal to have such big jumps (from 59.1% to 53.5%) in a single year in a national assess- ment. In my opinion, the jumps have not been the result of exams that are getting easier. They reflect improvements in the system as a whole. There is much still to be done but the situation is not all bad.”

To further prove his point, he provided another table, which shows a general trend in more pupils achieving A, B and C symbols from 2008 to 2013. (Stats for 2014 were not avail- able at the time of publication).

Pournara also raised was the issue of Caps: “Both the media and the department of basic education have attributed the drop in the maths pass rate to the changes brought about by Caps — with particular emphasis being placed on the impact of reintroducing Euclidean geometry.”

Euclidean geometry accounted for one-third of the marks in Paper 2. However, Umalusi acknowledged: “Pupils at the top experienced the mathematics examination [as being] much easier” and said that there had been “a slight downward adjustment at the top end.” According to Pournara, this suggests that more pupils got As on their actual scores when the scripts were marked than received As in their final results. This means that while the top perform- ers went up, the overall performance went down.

Having worked through the 2013 and 2014 exam papers, including Paper 3 of 2013, Pournara does not think that the 2014 papers were more difficult in the sections that were common in both years and also thinks that the geometry was generally of a similar standard to 2013. 

He believes that the anomaly is possibly explained by considering what has been happening in schools between 2008 and 2014: “In many schools across the country the majority of grade 12 pupils have been expected to write Paper 3 since 2008. In these schools, the re-introduction of Euclidean geometry made little dif- ference and I suspect it was pupils in these schools who performed very well. However, in the majority of schools where very few, if any, pupils had done Paper 3 since 2008, it’s a very different story. Teachers in these schools likely have far less experience of teaching the new content and this impacts on pupils. A key question is whether these pupils had been taught the new content from grade eight?”

Other factors to be taken into consideration when analysing the 2014-matric results include the issues of:

Cheating

Results were withheld in 58 matric examination centres in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape following copying in the 2014 matric exams. Instead of addressing the issue head on, quoting The M&G’s education editor David Macfarlane in an article on the Mail & Guardian website: “The Minister’s best response to the cheating scandal was to confuse everybody with her conflicting statements.” 

The EFF believes that the issue of cheating is “a worrying phenomenon for education in a country infested with corruption from the top”.

Part-time students

2014 saw 532 860 full-time pupils and 94 884 part-time pupils writing matric. It is important to note that the results of part-time pupils are not used to calculate the overall pass rate. Reasons for the increase in part-time students are unknown. One can only wonder if students at risk of failing were registered as part- time students in an attempt to show a good pass rate?

Dropouts

According to education nongovernmental organisation Equal Education, there is a “50% drop-out rate” and this mostly happens between grade 10 and 12. In 2003, 1 252 071 pupils entered into the South African public schooling system as grade one pupils while only 532 860 students wrote the 2014 matric exams. Looking at the number of pupils who wrote matric, they created a “cohort matric pass rate”. “The spectacular 78.2% pass rate of 2013 is now closer to a 40% pass rate, and we see the 2014 75.8% [pass rate] is actually closer to 36.4%,” says Equal Education.

It is only once all the factors are taken into consideration that one can truly get a clear picture of our education system. We must also remember that the future of our education system will be determined by the decisions and implementations of today. As Benjamin Disraeli said: “upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.”