Delayed supp exams raise red flag

Educators say there is a risk that thousands of pupils who failed their matric exams but qualify to write supplementary exams might be lost to the system as a result of the department’s decision to move the date for supplementary exams from March to June.

Last year, the basic education department announced that those qualifying for supplementary exams would write in June, citing wasteful expenditure as one of its reasons for the change because many pupils who register for the exams in February do not show up.

But teacher unions and MPs have raised red flags, saying the change could be disastrous without a working plan by the department to support the pupils through the months ahead.

The executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, Basil Manuel, said June was too far in the future for the pupils to be left to their own devices. It could only work if pupils were given adequate support.

“These are not children that could work on their own, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the situation where they are. Even with support, they still found it difficult, so they need more support, they need more encouragement and they definitely need physical teachers.”

In previous years, such as in 2017 and 2016, more than 100 000 pupils registered to write supplementaries. The number of those qualifying this year has not yet been announced but 400 761 of the 630 396 pupils who wrote all seven subjects passed.

The department insists that it has a plan, its Second Chance programme, which was begun in 2017 and supports pupils who have failed matric, even years before, and who want to write again.

But critics say this plan is only good on paper.

In a briefing to the parliamentary portfolio committee on basic education in 2017, at which the department presented reasons for moving the supplementary exams to June, Democratic Alliance MP Nomsa Tarabella-Marchesi said the department’s argument for the change “was not convincing”.

“It meant that an entire year for the candidates would be wasted all because they had to write supplementary examinations in June when they could have written in March and then enrolled at a university for the second semester. It seemed the [department’s] proposal was looking more at saving costs than providing the best opportunities for learners,” she said.

The department’s director general, Mathanzima Mweli, told the committee that the reason for moving the exams to June was to provide support to pupils. He said surveys had shown that “there was a great need for support” for pupils writing supplementary exams and it was “unreasonable” to expect pupils to do well when they had little time to prepare for exams.

In answer to questions from the Mail & Guardian, the department said it offers pupils face-to-face classes at 76 centres, it broadcasts educational programmes on radio and TV and it offers learning material online and at public libraries — all of which are part of its Second Chance programme.

The department referred the M&G to its website for more information about the programme. According to the site: the department broadcasts educational programmes on DStv and on 27 community radio stations.

But many South Africans, especially those in rural areas, do not have access to DStv and it is not known whether the radio stations reach all those who need to know.

An interactive telematic education programme, a virtual programme run by the University of Stellenbosch at specific venues, is mostly available at schools in the Eastern Cape, the Western Cape, the Northern Cape and at only one school in Limpopo and one in KwaZulu-Natal.

There was information from 2016 about the internet broadcast project for supplementary exams, but that was only for schools in the Free State.

There are video tutorials to download, some from 2015. These are mostly from 312Mb to 54Mb, which is the shortest. Using wi-fi, it took about 15 minutes to download a 312.29Mb video.

The number of centres for face-to-face support also appears to be inadequate. For example, the vast Eastern Cape has 12 education districts, but only four centres, all of which are in the former Transkei. These centres are not enough to cover even that the area and its schools. For example, one centre is in Mount Fletcher, which falls under the Joe Gqabi district, which has 67 schools.

Gauteng has the most districts (15) and has eight centres. There is only one centre in Soweto, the biggest township in the country.

The centres offer 12-hour face-to-face classes.

Those who do not have access to face-to-face classes must rely on online services.

Manuel said the department thinks it has a plan to support the pupils but cautioned that “the plan is not fully thought out”.

“To say [pupils must] go online, you are assuming that they have access and I know that a lot of children do have even in our rural areas. However, it is expensive even for middle-class people, let alone children who come from poor households.”

Manuel said the centres were a nice idea, but insufficient to serve about 9 000 high schools in the country. He added that some pupils might not even have the money to travel to the centres.

The treasury has allocated R261.1-million for the programme for the periods 2018-2019, 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, after a R117-million reduction.

The spokesperson for the department, Elijah Mhlanga, said, despite the budget cut, the programme would still survive. He said, in the main, the money was to raise awareness and provide learning materials and other support that is required by the pupils.

He said the examination section of the programme had its own budget.

Teacher unions said they were not aware of any plans by the department that involved their members in the supplementary exams.

“If the department is having a plan, that plan was never shared with us … Now if the plan was never shared with the teachers which means that plan is not going to be implemented because people who are supposed to implement the plan are clueless … So that means there is no plan in as far as we are concerned,” the president of the National Teachers’ Union, Allen Thompson, said.

The general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, Mugwena Maluleke, said the union had long criticised the department for reducing pupils to mere statistics.

“Education is an investment and not an expense. It can’t be that you reduce the cost when in fact you were supposed to be investing in the future of these young people to be able to qualify and succeed,” he said.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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