Education system must be overhauled to prepare matriculants

The subject of progressed learners has dominated discussions at many public platforms and dinner tables. But what seems to raise most people’s eyebrows is the notion of allowing a child who failed grade 11 twice to enter grade??12. This contentious issue poses serious political and moral dilemmas for the state, particularly the department of basic education.

Many teachers and education commentators have expressed deep reservations about the policy, arguing that they believe this approach is “unsustainable” because it saddles teachers with added responsibilities to support learners who perhaps should have been kept back.

The department introduced this policy primarily to throw a lifeline to these learners so that they can exit the system with at least some form of qualification. The learners who are “progressed” are those most likely to become discouraged and leave school. It is estimated that almost 50% of grade 1 learners do not complete grade 12. This is a bleak picture.

The policy should be understood in a broader context. The department introduced this policy partly to prevent learners from being retained in a phase for more than two years. There are three phases. These codes deal with such aspects as learner promotion, repeat, condonation, progression and adjustment. The promotion code for progression is implemented by progressing learners to higher grades so that the age cohort or admission age is not exceeded. Often the concept of progression is used interchangeably with age cohort. For example, a learner in grade 5 should not exceed the age of 14. This method is also used as a mechanism to reduce the bottleneck effect particularly in grade 9 and 11. It also reduces the disparity between the number of learners registering for grade 1 and those writing matric. 

Although the codes do not constitute a specific policy, they find expression in the following policies:

  • National Curriculum Statement (NCS) for all subjects; Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement for all subjects listed in NCS grade 1-12; 
  • National policy pertaining to the programme and promotion requirements of NCS grade 1-12; and 
  • National Protocol for Assessment for grade R to grade 12.

In addition, grade 12 learners who achieve levels 1 and 2 in individual subjects are provided with support together with progressed learners. This makes the challenge wide for both grade and subject specificity. It is clear therefore, based on the above, that the pressure for the education system to assist learners coincides with the ultimate measure of the whole system – grade 12 results.

For me the policy is important from the point of view of retaining learners in the system and this will resonate well with those who raised concern about the high number of learners dropping out before they complete matric. Recently, the Council of Education Ministers took a decision to modulate matric so that failed learners have the option to focus on the subjects they are ready to write this year and then prepare for the remaining subjects the next year. I support the concept of matric modulation only if the aim is to assist the academically weak learners – those who despite remedial attention still battled to cope with grade 12 curriculum. In other words, modulation should not be afforded to every learner who failed grade 11.

The issue to me should not be about whether learners are ready to pass grade 11 or not. Rather, it should be about whether the schooling system provides learners with adequate preparations to exit grade 12 having acquired basic minimums. It would be naive to assume that these learners suddenly appeared at grade 11. What is clear about the progressed learners is that, given targeted and differentiated support, they can do well in grade 12. As a matter of fact, 3 297 of the 65 671 passed matric with bachelor’s qualifications thus disproving the view that there is no way they would make it because they failed grade 11. What is clear is the problem is not necessarily with the learners but the schooling system.

The other crucial context to consider about the progression policy is the tendency by most schools to withhold poor performing learners from writing matric examinations. Sometimes these schools “gatekeep” or divert them to enrol as part-time learners to achieve better matric pass rates. This contributes to a high number of dropouts because schools chase pass rates and do little to help learners who struggle.

Another key issue to highlight is that often teachers at feeder classes do not make an extra effort because they know that, in terms of the policy, learners will have to be progressed anyway.

Linked to this is our fixation with the matric pass. Our schooling system puts too high a prize on passing matric, such that we would do everything it takes to progress our learners to the next grade even though they are inadequately prepared. This is why most of them drop out in their first year at university; they have not developed the cognitive and high-order thinking skills to grasp the content at tertiary level. I do not undermine the achievement and sacrifices learners make to pass matric.

Even though the policy has good intentions, I think the department should work hard to keep the numbers of progressed learners low. The solution lies in overhauling the system and introducing programmes such as annual national assessments, notwithstanding the controversy they stirred up with teacher unions. What is needed is a system that conducts regular, rigorous assessments and does not rely only on the grade 12 pass assessment. Learners should pass because they have met the minimum requirements. It means teachers in all grades should have knowledge of the subjects, the curriculum and, more importantly, know how to teach. The department of basic education should also ensure there is effective leadership to address the problems of punctuality, absenteeism and effective classroom teaching.

I suggest the following to address some of the deficiencies in our education system: 

  • Continue to hold the lower grade teachers accountable; 
  • Insist that teachers cover the whole curriculum on time; 
  • Have regular and quality assessment in the lower grades; and 
  • Conduct a baseline assessment in grade 10 to assess the extent to which learners lack the basic knowledge to start further education and training. It is important learners understand that grade 12 is a three-year study experience and that if they do not understand grades 10 and 11 curricula their chances of making it into grade 12 are limited.

Adopting a holistic approach in dealing with the challenges at school level has the potential to yield tangible benefits. Most problems that schools experience are related to factors such as basic infrastructure, teacher training, leadership and governance. Kagiso Shanduka Trust has implemented a system-wide model, which most schools have adopted to turn their situations around and deliver better academic results, called the District Whole School Development Programme. The model helps schools improve learners’ academic performance and optimise their operations. The programme also addresses the issue of capacity-building to assist teachers enhance their curriculum content knowledge in specific subjects and to deal with other critical issues such as leadership, governance and accountability. Most significantly, the programme is designed to help avoid a congestion of progressed learners in grade 11 and make sure learners are adequately prepared to proceed to grade 12.

Themba Mola is a trustee of Kagiso Shanduka Trust.

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