Innovation needed to boost matric results

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the matric pass rate for the 2015 on January 5 2016. The results showed that 70.7% of South African matric students had passed, sparking plenty of debate as the overall pass rate dropped from 75.8% in 2014. Out of the 799 306 candidates who sat the exams, 166 263 achieved university admission status, which was an increase on the previous year (150?752). 

The department of education has put significant effort into addressing inequalities across the system through a number of initiatives and investments, but there remain challenges that impact learners and schools alike. That said, there was a greater level of matric enrolment at 455 825 learners in 2015 from the 403 874 in 2014, and performance in critical subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths showed a marked improvement. The number of learners passing mathematics increased from 120 523 in 2014 to 129 481 in 2015; while the number of learners passing physical science has increased from 10 348 in 2014 to 113 121 in 2015.

“The results look good from afar, but should be reviewed from all perspectives,” says Banyana Mohajane, head of department for skills and social development, Adopt-a-School Foundation. 

“The increase in the number of learners who passed matric should be applauded, however, the number who didn’t write their matric due to the department of basic education’s (DBE) process of modulating should also be taken into consideration.”

The principal of modulating learners requires that certain pre-identified students write their matric exams in modules over the course of 2016. The exams are split over 12 months and allow for learners to complete certificates within an extended period of time. But this is, according to Mohajane, not necessarily a benefit.

“We are likely to lose many of these learners over the course of the year and some may not end up completing their matric exams at all,” Mohajane adds. “Another challenge is that included in the pass rate are those matriculants who received endorsed certificates. These are learners who have various remedial barriers and who were identified by the DBE to write fewer subjects in their exams.”

There is also the much discussed issue of the “progressed” learners whose admittance into the final results contributed to, according to the minister, the lower pass rate. If their results were removed from the tally, the final pass percentage shoots up to 74%, only a few points off the 2014 results. However, this statement alone is cause for concern.

“Progressed learners are pupils who failed grade 11 twice, but were promoted to grade 12 without meeting the passing criteria,” says Jackie Carroll, chief executive of Media Works. “This is so utterly sad. The minister is unaware that this statement is, in truth, an admission of failure on the part of the DBE. People who fail grade 11 twice should never have been promoted to grade 11 in the first place — they have been struggling for years and should have had their needs addressed years ago, when an intervention could have saved their schooling career.”

Dr Felicity Couglan, director of The Independent Institute of Education (IIE) , adds: “We would argue that reducing the number of subjects would only be of value to progressed learners if it is accompanied by teaching and support to enable them to improve their mastery of key concepts as well as the grade 11 and 12 curriculums. Students who struggle often do so due [to] gaps in their understanding and competence, and addressing these will assist them significantly. Simply repeating a year is unlikely to provide the quantum of improvement sought.”

The question is — who is ultimately responsible for this intervention? Is it really the DBE and the exclusive domain of school and teacher? The answer to the latter is no. To the former, it is everyone. The old African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” has never been more poignant or applicable when it comes to supporting students and the legacy issues of the South African education system.

“We must acknowledge the crucial impact parents and their communities have on the success of young people,” says Rowena Singh, programme manager, KwaZulu-Natal, IIE Varsity College School of Education. “When parents are supportive of their children and mindfully engaged in the education process, those children fare well in most spheres of life and aspire to be achievers in their own right. The idea that education is the responsibility of the school and government impacts on attitudes to learning and the level of personal engagement by the students.”

There is often a perception that in poorer communities there is a significant lack of parental engagement, which results in poor results. According to education activist Dr Louise van Rhyn, dysfunctional and resource-restrained schools enjoy very little to no parental support.

“This is often because parents simply cannot afford to help or are not skilled in helping with finances, administration or other functions that are normally handled by a school’s governing body,” she says. “This severe lack of parental engagement is an important distinction between a well-functioning school and a struggling school in a township.”

Suzanne Edmunds, chief executive of Project Build, adds: “There are hundreds of children coming out of township and rural schools with good matric results. I recently visited an Umlazi school where the infrastructure was awful, but they had a 100% pass [rate] of which 97% were what are now called ‘bachelor passes’ which entitle children to study at academic or technical universities. On the downside there are sad stories of the schools where learners go through the system having learned nothing due to poor learning conditions.”

A study entitled Do K-12 School facilities affect Education Outcomes, by Ed Young, found that students attending school in newer and better facilities scored five to 17 points higher on standardised tests than those in sub-standard buildings. It also showed that the quality of the learning environment affected teacher behaviour and attitudes. 

“During the course of my work I visit many schools, mainly in disadvantaged areas,” says Edmunds. “What we see is good principals and staff struggling against the awful odds of poor infrastructure. Overcrowding is just one aspect. Toilet facilities are abysmal, unhealthy and unsafe. Society cries [out] for ECD (early childhood education). For ECD to be successful it needs purpose-built facilities. Little ones have completely different needs from their older counterparts.  I’m not even going to venture into shortages in libraries, laboratories, sports facilities.”

Says Mohajane: “Research has proven that the critical age for effective learning is before eight years old. It is at this stage when the child undergoes a rapid phase of growth and development.  Most energy and funds should be directed towards ECD and the foundation phase. Children should get the precise fundamentals to build their cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor development.”

Infrastructure development is a priority for government, which recently announced the creation of the Accelerated School Infrastructure Development Initiative (ASIDI) that demolishes schools constructed from inappropriate materials and replaces them with properly constructed ones. Over the past year it has completed 116 schools, provided 499 schools with water, 425 with sanitation and 289 with electricity. Things are changing, but there is no proverbial silver bullet and sustainable development takes time.

Another side to the education debate is, of course, the so-called “bachelor pass” that is increasingly used as a benchmark of matric result success. A school may have a 100% pass rate, but the perception is that if the marks do not grant university entrance, then they don’t really count. However, for those who did achieve that elusive pass, are they genuinely prepared for the rigours of university life, and is this really the ultimate goal?

According to the National Benchmark Test in Academic Literacy and data collated over a five-year period, the answer to the first part of that question is a resounding “no”. The numbers suggest that only one-third of the more than 70 000 applicants are at a level where they can cope with the demands of tertiary education, and more than 50% will need extended or additional forms of academic support to succeed.  While much of this data can be used to point an accusing finger at the secondary and primary schooling systems, there is also a role that the university has to play. 

“Education, at all levels, needs to be upgraded to respond to the needs of society, especially to help learners attain practical skills that can lead to [them] gaining and maintaining employment,” says Carroll. “Training programmes must provide real life skills, encourage innovation and support learner talents. Technology must be incorporated into learning methodologies to accommodate work schedules.

“Underneath the layer of good performance, there are many children who will never be able to perform well at a tertiary level or find a good job, because they were not equipped with the foundational knowledge and skills needed to attain success,” says Van Rhyn. “As a country we expend a lot of effort getting children to and through grade 12, but we forget that matric starts in grade 1, where they learn the foundational skills that ensure success at a tertiary level. This is why we are seeing such high drop-out rates in the first and second year of university.”

There is also a notable bias in the system where employer prefer graduates with degrees as opposed to technical vocational education training, which is unfortunate. Carroll points out that they are just not seen as desirable, even though significant funding has been allocated to these colleges that provide students with highly relevant skills for the market.

Statistics released by the ministry of education — 100 students enter school, 40 make it through to the exams, 28 pass, four enter higher education, and just one graduates — show that there is no instant cure or silver lining to the gloomy cloud.

“There are a number of recent policies that indicate that the DBE is addressing some of the root causes of underperformance,” says Mohajane. “Examples of this promising progress include the recent workbook initiative, the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement, the Action Plan to 2030, implementation of the Annual National Assessments and the development of the South African Sign Language Curriculum to bring about clarity and inclusivity.”

There has been a nationwide teacher profiling project which has provided the DBE with useful and accurate data on the skills base and teacher challenges. This information will be used to address issues and ensure the correct deployment of teachers and potentially attract the attention of young, driven educators into the system. 

“The new Adult Matric curriculum is going to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of adults in this country,” says Carroll. “It will give people who fell out of the system for whatever reason a second chance.”

Adult Matric, also known as National Senior Certificate for Adults, requires learners to complete four subjects and has achieved a 50% higher pass rate.

It allows for a longer study timeframe, can be done face-to-face and through e-learning platforms — and there are no minimum entry requirements. It addresses a trend in the workplace to only hire those who have matric certificates and allows for organisations to play a role in furthering the educational capabilities of their employees. 

However, the work undertaken by government, nongovernmental organisations and  the private sector in addressing the inequalities of the education system will take years to take effect and yield tangible results. Until then, the numbers are weighted heavily against those who are not privileged enough to be a part of the mere 25% of schools that make up the functional schooling system.

Tamsin Oxford
Tamsin Oxford
I am a professional editor, journalist, blogger, wordsmith, social junkie and writer with over 19 years of experience in both magazine publishing and Public Relations.

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