Broken teachers, broken children – the high cost of matric

Testing: Botshelo Sekgothe and Tshegofatso Nthite, who are in grade 12 at Tsogo High School in North West, study maths ahead of their prelimenary exams. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Testing: Botshelo Sekgothe and Tshegofatso Nthite, who are in grade 12 at Tsogo High School in North West, study maths ahead of their prelimenary exams. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The toll of the grade 12 exam is mounting, given the increasing demands on teachers and learners attempting to make up for 11 years of a failing education system, writes Bongekile Macupe


When she was in grade 12, Nontlantla Qamata left home for three months, taking with her a sponge, blankets and clothes, and moved into the hall at her high school.

There, Qamata and other matriculants woke up at 5am to make a fire outside and boil water to bathe. School started at 6.30am, and lessons ended at 3.30pm, when learners were allowed to return to the hall. But at 5pm they had to be in class again for an evening session that would end only at 9pm.

Qamata did not go home over the weekends.
On Friday afternoon, the learners would travel to a nearby high school, where they would attend weekend classes with other learnersfrom nearby schools, the first being in the evening of their arrival. On Saturday, class started at 8am and went on until 1pm.

Qamata returned home after finishing her final matric exam.

Her situation is not unique. Increasing pressure for good matric results forces learners to attend extra classes. And the pressure isn’t borne only by the matriculants — grade 12 teachers are also under pressure to deliver the best results for their schools. This means less time with their own children and there is no time for a social life.

This situation can carry a high cost. A teacher in the Northern Cape said he is on his second marriage, after his first wife left him because he was “married to his job”. He says his first wife did not understand why he would arrive home at 5pm after having left early in the morning, or why he would teach on weekends and holidays.

“She couldn’t take it anymore. She left me,” he said.

The pressure has been ramped up in recent years, according to the teachers, learnersand union official. The stress is exacerbated by live television announcements of matric results, as well as the unspoken competition between provincial MECs of education to see which province gets the best pass rate.

The interviews showed a world in which learners stop being children when they get into matric — all they do is study. Similarly, the teachers guiding them also lose out, with burnout and mental health issues consistently cited as the “cost of matric”.

In government schools, grade 12 learners have to attend morning classes, which start at about 6am, and afternoon classes, which are from 4pm to 6pm or from 5pm to 8pm or 9pm. There are also Saturday and Sunday classes: teachers use these weekend classes to cover any work that they might not have concluded during the week.

In addition, winter, autumn and spring camps are organised by provincial education departments during holidays. Learners are bussed to a venue where they are taught by teachers from other schools. There are camps for top-performing learners in subjects such as maths and physical science, as well as camps for underperforming learners. The learners who don’t attend camps go to extra classes at their schools.

This means that learners and teachers get little rest during the school holidays. They get a week or two off in June holiday and in March they get a few days off. In September some schools don’t close at all.

Cost to matrics

Qamata, who is from the Eastern Cape, said she found the extra classes during the school term and the classes in the holidays were overwhelming. “Ibidika lanto. It was frustrating not being able to be with your family. And studying nonstop was exhausting.

“But,” she added, “it did help most of us to pass and maybe without that intervention we would not have managed on our own.”

Qamata completed matric in 2017.

The pressure to do well in grade 12 is also exerted by parents and others. Some learners, such as Athenkosi Mbedlashe, found themselves at pains not to disappoint anyone. “I could not breathe. There was no time to rest,” said the first-year student at Nelson Mandela University.

Mbedlashe said that even teachers told them that if they fail grade 12 “ubomi buphelile”; life is over.

In a normal week, Mbedlashe would get home after 8pm and still needed to do her homework and study.

“I don’t support this thing of learners always studying. That pressure of always studying leads to some learners failing because there is no time to relax the mind,” she said.

This was true for Zwivhuya Ralulimi from Limpopo, who failed matric last year.

“I was not coping plus I am not strong academically. So I was always stressing about studying,” she said. “It affected me mentally and physically. I was always stressed.”

Ralulimi was shattered when she failed, even after putting in all the hard work.

“It was painful. I thought of doing something bad to myself, like overdosing on pills,” she said. “It was even harder to deal with it because my twin brother passed well and I failed dismally.”

Like her peers, Ralulimi said that schools need to cut down on extra classes and allow learners time to breathe and relax their minds.

Stress: Grade 12 pupils and teachers are under pressure to secure high matric pass rate rates. Extra classes are held in weekday mornings and evenings, over weekends and during school holidays (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Thabang Mokoena, from the Free State, said he doesn’t see his mother when she comes home to visit fromJohannesburg because he is always at school.

“I used to feel sad that I did not get to spend time with my mother, but now I tell myself that I have to study hard and make sure that she stops working for those white people,” he said. “I hope she understands why I don’t spend time with her when she is home.”

Thabang not only does not see his mother, he gets only five hours of sleep a night because he wakes up in the dark and coming home in the dark. This affects him academically.

“It’s hard to concentrate sometimes. If the period is two hours, I only concentrate for one hour,” he said.

Thabang added that because he has to be at school early in the morning, he does not have time to eat breakfast. “I sometimes feel dizzy because I have not eaten the whole day. It’s hectic. It’s hard, man. But I hope all of this pays off in the end and I [pass] and go to university.”

The pressure that comes with grade 12 has caused 17-year-old Tshegofatso Nthite from the North West to experience several meltdowns this year and she has had to attend therapy to deal with her anxiety.

Build foundations

These human costs have meant that, for years, people in the education sector — including unions and academics — have warned about the dangers of obsessing about matric results while neglecting the foundation phase, during which the building blocks for a successful schooling career are laid.

Analysts have pointed out that extra teaching hasn’t translated to a better matric pass rate. For the past five years, the national pass rate has remained at about 70%.

The basic education department’s diagnostic reports have, for those five years, read like a copy-and-paste when it comes to the limitations of learners — concluding that they are not critical thinkers. The reports for the years 2014 to 2018 all said: “In many cases, candidates appear to cope only with questions involving application of routine procedures that have been taught in the classroom, and struggle with those that require more independent or creative thought.”

This is despite the increase in teaching times, as well as education comprising one of the biggest parts of national expenditure. The Mpumalanga and Northern Cape education departments said they budget about R16-million for extra camps each year. Last year, the Limpopo department of education spent about R54-million on camps and Saturday classes.

Cost to teachers

Teachers said they are not teaching schoolchildren how to “access” knowledge or to become thinkers, but rather how to pass exams.

This focus on the grade 12 class to get good matric results means teachers neglect other grades.

A teacher in the Free State said this way of teaching is neither effective nor sustainable.

“Our education system is centred on results: they don’t care about imparting knowledge to learners, they just want results,” he said. “At the end of the day, we end up teaching the kids to pass. We don’t teach them to get the knowledge because we are under pressure to produce results; we are told that ‘These are the results that we want.’”

The teacher, who is married with two small children, said that he when he arrives home, most days he is so exhausted that he cannot help his own children with their homework or play with them. “There are things that happen in my house and I do not know about them because I’m hardly there,” he said.

An Eastern Cape teacher said that at the rate things are going in her profession, she is contemplating leaving the job, despite having been a teacher for only five years.

“I think about leaving every day. I plan it every day. The job is not glittery as people think it … I’m still young, but I have lost all motivation. If I were to get [another] job now I would be out. As much as I love teaching, it’s not working out. And my kids need me.”

The way matric is structured means that teachers have to do a year’s worth of work in seven months, so that learners are ready for the preliminary exams.

The Eastern Cape teacher said: “This is why you have extra lessons. We have extra classes and we fight for time like a bone among us teachers because everyone wants their time with the kids,” she said. “It overlaps to Saturday classes. With all of that, we also have winter classes. And once they finish writing preliminary exams in September, they will have to attend spring classes.”

Rushing through the curriculum also means that teachers have to cover a new topic every week and ensure that learners write weekly tests on the topics. This is as per guidelines set by the department of basic education.

A teacher in the Free State said: “So, sometimes you find that we assess learners, not on their understanding, but … based on the amount of work that they have done. If you teach a child and the child gets zero out of 25 in a test, it’s fine — you do corrections and move on. So you don’t necessarily make sure that a learner understands, but you [continue], because you have to keep up with the pace set by the department.”

Little reward

This obsession with results has also been repeatedly questioned by government bodies. In its 2013 report — A Proposal for Undergraduate Curriculum Reform in South Africa — the Council on Higher Education concluded that: “The overwhelming weight of evidence from current analyses of the school sector is that there is effectively no prospect that it will be able, in the foreseeable future, to produce the numbers of well-prepared matriculants that higher education requires.”

The report noted that the education system is producing learners who are not good enough to go to university. “The higher education performance patterns indicate that the majority of the statutorily qualified students — including a very large majority of those with diploma passes — are not well-prepared for current higher education programmes.”

In an attempt to deal with this, universities have changed their courses to give first-year students more time to catch up. But universities are also under pressure to achieve better results in order to get more funding.

The government is trying to alleviate the pressure on matric learners through initiatives such as a new year of schooling to be introduced before primary school that will shift the focus to early childhood development.

Interventions such as this are trying to ensure that there is less “catching up” needed in grade 12. But, for the foreseeable future, learners will still be giving up a year of their childhood to learn and regurgitate facts and formulas for their matric exams.

This is part of a series on the human cost of the broken education system
Bongekile Macupe

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