The department of basic education is pushing to impose annual throughput targets on provinces — a measure of how many children who enter grade one successfully complete matric — a move both radical and politically adventurous.
The department is also adamant that it will go ahead with competency tests for aspirant principals, a decision likely to see significant push-back from some unions.
This week the department announced a 2016 matric pass rate of 72.5%, a marginal increase of 1.8 percentage points over the previous year.
The move by the department could be seen as targeting the one sure-fire mechanism that some provinces — and individual schools — have of massaging their numbers: preventing underperforming learners from writing the final exam, which is known as gatekeeping.
Research has shown that only about 60% of learners who enter the schooling system complete grade 12. Although part of the high dropout rate can be attributed to natural attrition such as death and financial hardship, some schools actively encourage learners they believe will fail to drop out, either in their matric year or in the year before. And some provincial authorities — ranked against one another on the final pass rate — are known to have turned a blind eye to the practice.
The throughput rate must be considered in cases such as KwaZulu-Natal, which the national department singled out for praise, it said in its review of the 2016 results.
“What is also noteworthy is that, despite KwaZulu-Natal’s relatively low pass rate in recent years, a high percentage of youth in this province have obtained the [national senior certficate]. This would be a province which would be underappreciated if one looks only at the pass rate. KwaZulu-Natal’s pass rate must be read together with the fact that the throughput rate is good,” the department said.
According to the document, KwaZulu-Natal’s throughput gains will be used as an example of best practice that can be emulated by the other provinces. That will spell trouble for some. The latest available figures show that the Eastern Cape had a grade 11 completion rate of 60% in 2014, and in the Northern Cape it was only 56%. The rate was 85% for Gauteng.
Throughput gains are also sure to come at the expense of pass rates in provinces already struggling. In the 2016 year, the pass rate in Limpopo dropped from 65.9% in the previous year to 62.5%, and Mpumalanga also saw a small percentage-point decline.
But the 2016 numbers also provided hope, with signs that the resources available to schools are not the sole determinant of success. Of those who successfully completed the matric exam, a total of 162 574 achieved bachelor’s passes. Slightly more than 48.5% of these came from quintile one to three schools, the poorest in the system.
The performance of “progressed” learners, promoted to a higher grade after failing twice, also offered hope. Some of these achieved bachelor’s passes and subject distinctions, said Professor Elizabeth Walton from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Wits School of Education.
“This shows us that, with support, these learners can succeed. Early school leaving often follows grade repetition in the high school years, and this policy has encouraged learners to stay within the system.”
Walton warned that the annual focus on matric could detract from early childhood and foundation-phase learning, particularly in a subject such as maths, which requires sequential knowledge building.
“Studies have shown that learners who are not meeting grade level expectations by the end of grade four find it very difficult to catch up. The returns on money spent on interventions at the higher grades are not as great as when we invest in quality teaching and learning in the early years.”
She was also “somewhat perturbed” by the way results were presented as an interprovincial competition, which she considered dangerous “as it filters to districts and then to schools, with pressure to have the highest pass rate.
“We know from research internationally that, when schools are set up to compete with each other for ranked places, it often results in the exclusion of ‘undesirable’ learners.”
The deputy minister of basic education, Enver Surty, said he was “absolutely in favour of competency tests” for school principals as a condition of their appointment.
“I can say that publicly on any platform,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “It’s in our draft legislation already. It’s going to be submitted to the Cabinet and to Parliament, and the political parties in general are in support of that approach.”
The Western Cape has been the only province so far to implement competency tests for aspirant principals. Gauteng has developed the test but has not yet implemented it.
Guidelines for tightening up the administrative processes for the appointment of principals, including the implementation of a competency test, were discussed by the Council of Education Ministers as far back as November 2011.
“There is empirical evidence that schools that are functional and effective are usually headed by principals who are very competent and skilled,” Surty said.
He said principals needed to have the appropriate communication, curriculum implementation and financial management skills. “It’s happening in the Western Cape. There’s no reason why it can’t happen elsewhere and the question is really to nudge along.”
The powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union has argued that competence testing is disrespectful of teachers, fails to take into account the legacy of apartheid and would be demoralising. The union has also told the government that it considers the matter one of “mutual interest”, which makes it subject to collective bargaining.
One way or the other, principals are going to be a major focus of attention in coming years. The head of Limpopo’s education department, Beauty Mutheiwana, said that they would be “cracking the whip” on principals of schools that had consistently underperformed in the matric exams.
“We are not going to take it lightly and be soft in terms of our approach. Everyone is supposed to deliver what we expect them to deliver and they are going to account. We are not happy about our performance.”
She added that some principals could be removed from their posts.
“We are going to analyse the performance trends [of schools] for the past five years and obviously if that [results] is not coming up, principals will have to explain why we should keep them in their positions.”
Learner’s bitter distinctions
Against all odds, a learner who died of cancer days after writing his final matric paper bagged four distinctions.
There was not a dry eye in sight when matric learners of Dendron Secondary in Limpopo heard on Thursday that one of the school’s stars, Thapelo Selepe, had obtained distinctions in English, life sciences, physical science and life orientation.
Selepe’s maths and science teacher, Nathaniel Masetsa, said it was “painful” when he saw Selepe’s results.
It was also a bittersweet moment for Selepe’s classmate and best friend, Karabo Moremi, who was declared the country’s top achiever in the quintile one, or poorly resourced, school category.
The 18-year-old said Selepe had been his inspiration, adding: “When we started the finals, I had to make sure I push in order to make him proud. He always said I am going to make it and his prophecy has come true.”
Selepe was to study chemical engineering. The universities of Pretoria and Cape Town have a place for Moremi to study actuarial science. — Prega Govender