From a particular quarter, there has been a persistent campaign advocating for the closing of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB), on the grounds that it creates two “systems” of education.
The basis of this argument disregards the laudable contribution of the IEB within South Africa’s fraught educational history and the unfortunate consequences closing IEB would have.
Although the IEB was founded in 1989, it was forged from a predecessor assessment body, the Joint Matriculation Board (JMB). The JMB was established at the turn of the 20th century.
In a time of racialised educational provision and assessment, the JMB was distinct in that it was a nonracial assessment body. Thus, in the 1980s when the prospect of the JMB closing its assessment function became a reality, this would have left South Africa without a nonracial examination body. It was principals at progressive independent schools that operated on a nonracial basis who made the approach to the JMB to take over its assessment function. It was on this basis in 1989 that the IEB commenced operations as the only nonracial examination body in South Africa.
There is a spurious line of reasoning that argues that, now that we have a democratic Constitution, nonracial bodies of the past have served their purpose and should be shut. In other words, the work of fighting racism is over.
Obviously, this is a naive understanding of how human institutions operate. It is those bodies that undertook the hard work of extolling the virtues of diversity during apartheid that are needed now, more than ever before, because the work of creating an inclusive society is never finished. In fact, it is those institutions that have been championing laudable humanistic aims that should be preserved. Even in a democratic society, such work needs to be performed by all, including civil society, and cannot be left to government to shoulder the burden alone.
The constitutionally enshrined right of citizens to build institutions that are independent of government and do not need to comply obsequiously with the prevailing national policy of the time represents a substantial defence of democracy.
Civil society bodies allow for dissent, debate and opposition, as well as collaboration, agreement and partnership, when and where they choose. In any healthy democracy, there must be independent, alternate voices on all issues, and education is certainly no exception.
Educators who strive for excellence seek to instil the values of critical thinking and problem-solving, as well as the acceptance of diversity and different ways of being and thinking and doing. If we cannot have a tolerant, diverse and open approach to education, then we are on boggy ground and risk being mired in orthodox prejudices.
The ‘two systems’ myth
We must debunk the ill-informed myth of “two systems” of examinations. In terms of the South African qualification arising from the national curriculum, the National Senior Certificate (NSC), South Africa only has one issuing body, the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training, known as Umalusi.
South Africans can obtain the NSC through three examination entities: the department of basic education (DBE), the South African Comprehensive Assessment Institute (Sacai) and the IEB. All these bodies examine achievement on the further education and training certification of the National Curriculum Statement (NCS).
Although these three entities set different examinations, they examine the same curriculum. Most importantly, although they examine the NCS, they do not award certificates to candidates. The power to issue a certificate resides with Umalusi, which issues one type of certificate, indicating the level of achievement of each examination candidate who has passed.
In South Africa, there is no such thing as an IEB or Sacai certificate for matric. There is only a certificate granted by Umalusi. This certificate is standardised and gives no indication of which examinations board conducted the assessments. This makes the certificate of a student who wrote their matric through the DBE indistinguishable from that of a student who wrote the NSC through the IEB.
In fact, it would seem that, if this sophistic reasoning were to prevail, South Africa would not have two examination systems on the NCS, but three. It would then follow that should the IEB be eliminated, then so too should Sacai. Those who are advocating for the closure of the IEB need to explain why they are targeting the IEB and not also Sacai.
Ironically, Umalusi is advantaged by having to moderate examination papers from three assessment institutions. It is able to observe the different ways in which the curriculum can be assessed, thus strengthening its moderation function.
Were those agitating for South Africa to have one examination body to succeed, it then follows that the country would have to adopt a single curriculum. Within schools that are members of the Independent Schools Association of South Africa (Isasa), a diversity of curriculums are on offer. There are schools that offer, inter alia, the International Baccalaureate (IB), the Cambridge education pathway, the German Abitur, Montessori and Waldorf. Thus, a threat to the IEB has broader implications for independent education in our country.
I suspect that this freedom to adopt whichever curriculum is deemed desirable by an independent school would find protection in the Constitution.
‘Unequal standard’ argument
It would seem that part of the rationale for focusing on the IEB is the claim that there is a difference in quality or standard between the IEB exams and the NSC written in public schools. This temptation to create a hierarchy of value or importance when discussing education systems is a common pitfall. The truth is that different is simply that: different.
No examination will ever truly quantify the quality of education that a student has received over the course of their schooling, nor wholly capture that student’s ability. Examinations are a snapshot in time. They measure a particular performance on a specific day in response to that style of examination.
A common malady of educational commentators is fetishising high-stakes examinations as indicators of ability or intelligence. Excelling in matriculation examinations simply means that you excelled in the examinations. There is no proven correlation between matric performance and university or life success. What matters is the quality of education received during schooling.
Furthermore, the skills, traits and competencies that are truly needed to succeed, not only in tertiary studies but also in life, are not being given sufficient focus or credit: research skills, critical thinking skills, a questioning persona, tenacity and a strong collaborative bent. These skills, more than an IQ indicator, will determine how successful one becomes in life.
Within Isasa, schools of all fee levels write the NSC with the DBE. It would follow that, if Isasa schools, which are all quality schools, were concerned about the standard of the examination set by the DBE, they would all be writing the NSC with the IEB. That is not the case. Many high-performing independent schools write the NSC with the DBE and are satisfied that its quality is aligned with their educational mission.
An incubator of innovation
The benefit that the IEB provides to the educational sector is partly because of its small size. (Last year, the IEB examined 12 130 candidates in Southern Africa, compared with the DBE’s 802 431 South African candidates.) This limited scale of schools permits the IEB to build communities of practice by subject. The IEB has productive and effective subject working groups in which teachers work with their peers from other schools by subject on school-based assessments. More importantly, besides the assessment benefits, communities of practice strengthen the quality of curriculum delivery. This supports the argument that it is the quality of the teaching and learning, as opposed to the examination, that is pivotal to educational success.
Out of this engagement with the curriculum, the IEB has developed an advanced programme for Afrikaans, English and mathematics, with other subjects to follow. All these courses are rated at Level 5 on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which are above the NSC that stands at NQF Level 4. The English and mathematics programmes have been benchmarked by the United Kingdom National Recognition Information Centre (UK Naric) and were found to be the equivalent of the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level (A Level).
These courses are open to all students (both in the public and independent sectors) who want to stretch themselves academically. Because Isasa sees itself as serving a national purpose, nothing better illustrates the IEB’s commitment to progressing national educational advancement than its advanced programme.
A promotor of the NCS
Many independent South African schools — the overwhelming majority of them members of Isasa — are committed to the NCS. Even those schools that offer a foreign curriculum have, by and large, not abandoned the South African curriculum but offer the foreign curriculum in conjunction with the NCS. These schools are not pursuing the NCS for jingoistic reasons but do so because the NCS is a strong curriculum of equal standing with its international counterparts.
If independent schools’ freedom to choose which examination body they will use to examine the NCS is stripped from them, this may prompt them to select a foreign curriculum instead. That would be a regrettable outcome for South Africa.
Lebogang Montjane is executive director of the Independent Schools Association of South Africa