Matric failure rate highest in ‘rural’ provinces

This year’s matric results reveal a chasm between rural and urban school contexts, fuelling speculation that the advocacy group Equal Education may have been justified in taking the issue of infrastructural problems to the door of the ministry of basic education.

Of grave concern was that three largely rural provinces – Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo – accounting for 50% of matric pupils, were classified as South Africa’s worst-performing provinces. In comparison, highly urbanised provinces like Gauteng and Western Cape have continued performing well. These provinces seem to have less infrastructural challenges than under-resourced, poor rural schools.

In her matric results speech this week, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga revealed a drop of five percentage points in this year’s matric pass rate of 70.7% from 75.9% last year.

The causes for this drop in performance might include rapid urbanisation which contributes towards skills migration; good teachers become concentrated in urban areas, leaving poor pupils exposed to “low-impact” teaching caused by the skills gap.

Notably, 2015 was the second year in which the matric syllabus was structured under the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (Caps). Motshekga said Caps placed more cognitive demands on pupils, leaving the impression that this year’s matric exams signified a move towards higher quality learning.

While any intellectual migration towards excellence is welcome, one is left wondering about the effect of teaching positions that were sold for cash: any candidate would buy a post on the basis of its financial strength and less on its pedagogical acumen.

Thus, from a developmental point of view, it is vital to balance Caps’s standards with the teachers’ pedagogical competence in the GET/FET (General Education Training and Further Education Training) phases. Teachers in the Caps framework ought to be appropriately skilled.

The deputy minister of basic education, Mohamed Enver Surty, spoke of digitising the entire schooling curriculum. This shift towards technology was achieved through realities such as pupil access to Wi-fi connectivity, to tablets and to information and communications technology in the classroom, mostly in urban schools.

But just how much of this technology contributed towards matric pupils’ good performance? Will it become policy to push for tablets in schools instead of training teachers for advanced skills in line with Caps’s high order thinking skills? Are tablets prioritsed over the development of teacher skills, particularly those in the country’s poorest regions?

There were 65 671 progressed pupils (schoolchildren who fail but are passed through to the next class) who registered for the 2015 National Senior Certificate exams, of which 22 060 passed. This number signified the department of basic education’s intention to make allowances for schoolchildren who otherwise would have prematurely exited the system, a slight attempt by the department of basic education in addressing the drop-out rate.

This raises questions: Will progressed pupils become a permanent cog in the FET phase? Is it not creating an added responsibility in a system crying out for relief? Shouldn’t such pupils have enough flexibility to pursue subject choices that perhaps resonate with their capabilities outside matric’s academic nature?

All indications point to a relatively functional education system in urban areas, but rural education needs extra support. Efforts should be aimed at providing good resources in infrastructural development (such as roads, water, electricity and school buildings), teacher development (pedagogical knowledge and skills upgrade), and school governance and leadership (parental and community engagement).

Although matric is the final measurement of success in the FET phase, it is imperative to also strengthen preceding phases in the whole GET band. This includes making improvements based on lessons learnt through annual national assessments outcomes which have consistently indicated the need to provide quality early childhood development. Ideally, the success of basic education should be measured through performance of schoolchildren from grade one to matric.

While we celebrate the success of those who passed matric in 2015, let us also spare a thought for the 200 000-plus pupils who did not, most of whom went to rural schools.

Challenges in education are ongoing, but it is encouraging that strides are being made by the department toward providing quality education to most of South Africa’s pupils. In the long run, the department will better be able to address access, redress and equity issues.

As Motshekga said: “Basic education is not a sprint but a marathon.”

Xolani Majola is a CSI manager for Private Sector Education

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