Editorial: One exam won't level the playing field

Matric students in Soweto. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Matric students in Soweto. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

It is understandable that the department of basic education wants to remove the two-tier system that governs school exams. The idea of one examination being set for private schools and another for government-funded schools looks like the perpetuation of the kinds of class and status distinctions that are so redolent of apartheid and its two-tier system for the people of South Africa, who were divided into white middle class and black working class.

Turning this two-stream way of setting and checking exams into a single, unified examination system, with standards that apply to all, regardless of their background in poor or rich homes, therefore looks like a commendable step towards equalising the status of those on each side of the divide.

But it is likely to prove a cosmetic form of equality, not a real one. It may make logical sense, in terms of rationalising our education system and creating a level playing field, but it will be impossible for a mere exam programme, however streamlined, to achieve those laudable aims.

If this were a race, it would be like creating finishing posts that offer an apparently equal chance of success to exam-writers.
But what if the two streams are running on radically unequal ground? What if one lot has a nicely graded racetrack, with the lines neatly set out, and the other group is faced with a collapsing surface over which it must attempt to run? The fact that the finishing posts are an equal distance away from the starting point will not make a great deal of difference to the results of the race: those who had a good run on a good track will reach the finishing line with greater speed.

The bulk of pupils in public schools are seriously disadvantaged from the start. Their educational environments are often little more than shells, without the necessary tools of learning (such as books); often, teachers are incompetent or absent. Basic amenities such as toilets, and basic services such as food provided by the state, are frequently lacking. The type of learning that can take place in such environments is apparent in the national figures for matric pass rates: they show pupils from poor and disadvantaged areas doing far less well than those in better-resourced private schools.

Some issues here have to do with the legacy of apartheid, certainly; some concern the present government’s abject failure to improve education for the majority of the population. It’s a big social issue, one that goes to the heart of post-apartheid transformation. It affects the future of the country.

It is something that must, more urgently than ever, be dealt with. But equal finishing posts are not likely to bring us much closer to the solution.

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