Matric ‘cheats’ let off the hook after two years of legal wrangling

The Durban high court has ordered a group of high school pupils who were implicated in group cheating in the 2014 matric exams to attend disciplinary proceedings before the end of the year.

The pupils from Mashiyamahle Secondary School in Ndwedwe, north of Durban, had steadfastly refused to attend formal hearings, saying they were innocent, and had demanded the release of their matric results.

They brought an application against the department of basic education, the KwaZulu-Natal education department and the exams quality assurance body, Umalusi.

Meanwhile, the basic education department has allowed pupils from seven schools in the Eastern Cape and 11 schools from KwaZulu-Natal, who were implicated in mass copying in 2014, to sit for the current exams even though they failed to appear for hearings.

These pupils do not include those from Mashiyamahle Secondary.

According to a report from the department, “learners could not be traced, given that they had relocated and school principals were not aware of their whereabouts”.

There was a huge outcry in 2014 after the department, as well as Umalusi and provincial education departments, identified irregularities following allegations of group copying at 58 schools in the two provinces.

The department deployed teams of subject specialists to conduct a detailed investigation into exam scripts in seven selected subjects.

Subsequently, candidates’ matric results at 20 schools in KwaZulu-Natal and 14 in the Eastern Cape were blocked by the department.

Invigilators and the implicated pupils were invited to attend formal hearings. Early last year, the department said the individual hearings for each pupil would allow each of them an opportunity to tell their side of the story and to respond to the charge of copying. They would also be allowed legal representation.

The Council of Education Ministers (CEM), comprising nine provincial education MECs as well as Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, agreed at the time to finalise the process of dealing with cases of mass copying.

In a statement released in February last year, the department stated that the MECs had agreed that “the highest punishment needs to be considered” for any invigilators who allowed such a practice to take place.

“They [the MECs] were unapologetic in their assessment that this type of behaviour from adult invigilators cannot be condoned in any way,” the statement read.

In its recent report, however, the department stated that as a result of the failure to get the implicated pupils from the 18 schools to attend hearings, their 2014 results had been nullified.

It said candidates “would be allowed to write the 2016 NSC [National Senior Certificate exam] if they so desire”.

The department did not respond to emailed questions.

But Umalusi spokesperson Lucky Ditaunyane said that the pupils had suffered enough already, as their likely punishment would have been a one-, two- or three-year ban from rewriting their matric exams.

“It had taken too long for us to finalise the process because of the legal wrangling,” he said.

Asked whether allowing them to write the exams this year was a travesty of justice because they had not appeared for their disciplinary proceedings, Ditaunyane said: “It’s really not about a travesty of justice; it’s about doing what is in the best interest for them despite the fact that they refused to present themselves for the formal hearings.”

He said that some of the pupils had taken up the offer to rewrite the subjects in which they had been implicated for cheating.

“However, we are aware it’s also up to the learners and those advising them to take up the offer because we cannot force these learners to write if they feel very strongly they were not guilty,” Ditaunyane said.

Welcoming the high court judgment in the Mashiyamahle Secondary School matter, Ditaunyane said that the judge had ordered the education department to release the pupils’ results in the subjects that were not affected by allegations of copying.

Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, said the department needed to “sharpen” the way it conducted disciplinary hearings.

“It’s important to strengthen it [the disciplinary processes] because it’s very important to ensure there’s [a] high level of discipline among teachers, parents and learners around the exams.”

He said that the department was meant to take disciplinary action against offenders to send a strong message that no pupil should even attempt or think about cheating in the future.

“These learners have been given a second chance to write, which we are saying they deserve. But what happens if they go to university with the understanding that they can always cheat the system?

“I don’t think it’s a very good moral system for any human being to say: ‘I succeeded through cheating.’”

Maluleke said he had heard through the grapevine that a few invigilators who had appeared at the disciplinary hearings had since resigned from the teaching profession.

Brahm Fleisch, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the key issue was “procedural fairness”.

“This principle would require a properly constituted disciplinary committee to adjudicate the charges. Given the seriousness of the charges, it seems to be that the learners would be entitled to professional representation,” he said.

He said that nullifying the results may be viewed as reasonable punishment.

He added: “However, this would have required a formally constituted disciplinary committee to order such a sanction.”

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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