Get over the No 1 matric obsession

The obsessive drive by provincial departments of education to be ranked the best performing province in the matric exams is dangerous and risks compromising the value of education in the South African public school system.

MECs for education downplay this as “healthy competition” but I’ve covered the release of matric results for long enough now to know otherwise. For some it is personal; a healthy bump to their egos. For others, their political careers depend on their province being announced the leading one in the matric results.

I’m told that two years ago one MEC for education, after learning that their province
had not clinched the number one spot, summoned their top management team to a meeting at the venue where the results had been announced.

A tongue-lashing was delivered and an edict for the province to be ranked first the following year was issued. No effort would be spared .

But that’s what happens behind the scenes. On stage, for all the world to see, there’s the theatre of congratulations. The insincerity of these towards the victorious MEC is quite palpable. The disappointment on the faces of the other eight is also quite visible.

This is not a healthy competition — it’s absurd.

The obsession to be ranked number one has dire consequences for the lives of teachers and learners. Both come under immense pressure, driven relentlessly to produce the best results — not for themselves, not for their future prosperity, not to better equip them with the acumen for life as an adult, but rather to satisfy a politician’s vanity.

In some parts of the country, grade 12 learners were already back at school after New Year’s day — this has become a normal occurrence — even though the academic year only started on Wednesday. This has meant that teachers and learners have had to cut short their holidays and family time to be back in class two weeks before schools officially opened.

In fact, basic education spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, tweeted last week: “Did you know that in 3 provinces (that I am aware of) some @DBE_SA schools are already open and teaching and learning is taking place? That’s what accounts for the improved performance. It comes as a result of real work done quietly in certain townships and villages.”

Why this “real work” cannot be done during term time is a mystery.

And it does not end there.

When schools closed in December, some Free State learners who had just passed grade 11 were already attending camps preparing them for grade 12.

The drive to go the extra mile must, of course, be commended but we have to seriously question the cost of this — and I don’t mean financially.

In August, Mail & Guardian laid bare the effect of the increased expectations placed on grade 12 learners and teachers — from morning and afternoon classes to camps during school holidays with some learners physically moving into the school premises once they get into grade 12.

I am all for interventions, but what is happening in South Africa is abuse and let us not sugarcoat it.

It also does not help that premiers put pressure on these MECs to achieve the best results so that their province can be ranked top in the country. Some MECs sign performance agreements to this effect. Politicians use this number one province nonsense as a campaigning tool when they want to fool voters into believing they are working hard.

This fixation with being tops also hides other gains made by learners in other provinces.

For example, Gauteng might not be the number one province but it has, over the years, consistently produced the top performing districts in the country. Six of the 10 best-performing districts in 2019 came from Gauteng. And, it may well be that it has been years since the Western Cape was ranked the number one province for matric results, but for many years it has produced the overall top learner in the country.

There is much to celebrate in every province when it comes to matric results. But it is all reduced to this facile race. And, too often, the province can be number one despite it producing mediocre results. What we should obsess about is quality and not quantity.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced last week that her department is looking at including other factors when announcing results, over and above the overall pass numbers and percentages which are currently used to determine the number one spot. These would include participation and success rate in critical subjects such as maths, accounting and physical science, the number and pass rate of progressed learners and the number of distinctions obtained.

This needs to happen very soon. Then maybe provinces will compete on who is producing quality passes in maths and distinctions — which is what is important — rather than a ranking which does nothing for the development of the country, but rather satisfies the narrow ambitions of politicians.

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