The grim reality of education: The poor get poorer schooling

Attention has been given to democratic South Africa’s first matric pass rate of more than 80%, but the reality is that schools with a 0% pass rate still exist. To look at the connection between dismal results, poor infrastructure and the toll that this takes on learners and educators, Chris Gilili and the M&G Data Desk dug into the numbers and went to Limpopo to find out more


There are schools that achieved a 0% pass rate in matric — 18 in total. Over the past three years, 2017 to 2019, 30 schools achieved a pass rate average of less than 20% . These are the schools where there is no water for learners to drink or textbooks for them to read. Some of these schools don’t have windows. The one thing that they have in common is that they are in the poorest provinces: the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

And, while politicians talk about a fourth industrial revolution and laud a matric pass rate of more than 81%, the reality is that the learners who attend these schools are destined to fail. This is according to Siyabulela Fobosi, a researcher with the Public Service Accountability Monitor unit at Rhodes University, who says these learners “don’t have access to what we call quality basic education”.

According to the latest National Education Infrastructure Management System report, the majority of schools have no laboratories, libraries or computer centres. 74% of schools don’t have libraries, 80% lack science labs and 63% don’t have computer centres. And the poorer the province, the greater the shortage in infrastructure, to the point where schools don’t even have basic necessities — such as toilets and desks.

In Mokgoma Matlala Secondary School, an hour south of Limpopo’s capital, Polokwane, learners have struggled to get water since September.


Grade 12 learner Kagiso Mokobi says studying without basic resources such as water is hard. “You see today is very hot as well. We struggle to focus on days like these,” he says.

There are sweat patches on his blue, short-sleeved shirt and his face is moist. “At break time we normally go around the village to ask for water, just to drink. We navigate between the houses, placed distant from each other, on the gravel paths,” Mokobi says. “Sometimes the teachers buy water on their way to the school. We don’t have textbooks here, no laboratory or library even. We cannot excel and perform well under such circumstances.”

More than 90% of schools in Limpopo have no science labs.

Mokobi knows this hardship very well. The 19-year-old failed his matric last year. He was one of 28 learners from the school who sat the exam. Only two passed. The school has had an average pass rate of 14% over the past three years.

“I do not think I failed because I am stupid or a slow learner. I failed because the school is not adequately resourced. We don’t have enough textbooks here to study effectively. We have to share them as groups of five for other subjects, and one doesn’t get enough time to prepare for exams, because we stay far apart from each other,” says Mokobi.

And his school is not the worst performing — nine schools in the province achieved a 0% pass rate in the 2019 exams, giving Limpopo the highest number of worst-performing schools.

An analysis by the Mail & Guardian Data Desk focusing on school matric pass-rate data shows that Mokgoma Matlala Secondary School is the 14th-worst-performing school in the country over the past three years.

Mokgoma Matlala Secondary School. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The worst-performing is Mahlaba Secondary School in Limpopo, an hour to the east of Mokobi’s school. No matric learners passed there last year. At a glance, the school looks in good shape — face-brick walls and a red roof only slightly worn by the weather. But inside the classrooms there are no doors, the windows are broken and learners have to compete for a desk.

When the M&G arrives, the economics teacher says the teachers don’t have desks and use their laps instead. The teacher, who doesn’t want to be named, says: “The worst thing is that the education department does visit the school, but they never say anything about improving the infrastructure. They just come for curriculum-related issues and that is about it. Where have you seen teachers sharing a toilet with students; it’s a huge disgrace.”

University of Johannesburg-based education specialist Mary Metcalfe says there is a tangible link between the performances in different provinces and underlying social, economic and educational inequalities. 

“It is a reality that education performance correlates with socioeconomic status. Schools serving wealthier communities perform better than schools serving poorer communities.” Poorer homes and communities also have fewer resources to support learning, she says. 

Essentially the poor are destined to stay poor.

More than 40km from Mokobi’s school is another school where learners keep failing — Senwane Secondary. No matric learners passed in 2018. Last year, of the 13 learners who wrote matric exams, only two passed. When the M&G visits the school it is locked, and there is grass taking over the yard. Some classrooms are left open, and there are desks packed untidily on top of each other. 

The Limpopo education department has responded to the school’s continued failure by closing and merging it with the neighbouring Rakudubane High School. The two schools are 3km away from each other. But Rakudubane is also struggling. There is only one tap in the school yard. There is no staff room, only three classrooms have electricity and there aren’t enough textbooks for the learners in some subjects.

Senwane Secondary has merged with Rakudubane High School (above). Only three classrooms have electricity. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

A teacher at the school, Marakalla Lesetja, says most of the school’s amenities are makeshift and falling apart and the teachers don’t not know how they are meant to produce basic pass rates, much less stellar results.

Sello Moeta, a teacher who came to Rakudubane from the now-defunct Senwane school says Senwane was bound to fail. For three years their school had no principal, and no mathematics, physics or English teachers. The four teachers had to teach seven subjects across grades 8 to 12. Last year just three of the 17 learners who sat matric passed. 

Moeta says: “You can just imagine such an environment working with no leadership; we were bound to perform poorly since certain subjects don’t have teachers.”

Thabo Phaladi, a former learner at Senwane Senior Secondary, says he dropped out in September 2017 before he could finish matric. “I had a challenge with understanding what we were taught. Especially for subjects like maths and physical sciences — there was no teacher for these two subjects. I panicked because my results were not improving; I kept failing my terms at matric. I informed my parents that what would work for me is dropping out and going to a skills college.”

This led him to train as a plumber at a college in Johannesburg, says Phaladi. “I am even ashamed to tell people I studied in Senwane because it’s been a poorly performing school for years,” he says.

The spokesperson for the provincial education department, Sam Makondo, says the school was not viable because it had less than 200 learners and, therefore, could not be allocated teachers. “The MEC indicated when announcing the 2019 NSC [national senior certificate] results that the department is going to ensure that all small and nonviable schools are merged to ensure that learners get quality basic education that they deserve.”

Makondo adds that schools are responsible for their maintenance as the department provides them with funding. “Our governance unit will be sent to the school to check why they are not maintaining the school as expected, because they do get the money — like other schools in the province.”

Although Makondo throws the issues back to the schools, the most recent National Education Infrastructure Management System report — released by the national education department — shows that Limpopo, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal still face the worst infrastructure backlogs.

Equal Education researcher Sibabalwe Gcilitshana says poor school infrastructure is a barrier to schooling and the lack of basic services in these schools contravenes the South African Schools Act, which contains norms and standards for school infrastructure. The Act stipulates that all schools should have had access to electricity, water and sanitation. But, despite the norms and standards banning pit toilets, Gcilitshana says there are 4000 schools using these “as their only form of sanitation”.

That failure is just one of a whole host that means that, despite a historic 81.3% matric pass rate, schools are not providing learners with the environment they need to obtain a good education.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is an Open Society Fellow in Investigative Reporting at Wits University. Currently spending six months with the Mail and Guardian in the Investigations desk. He started journalism with Independent Media’s vernacular publication, I’solezwe LesiXhosa in East London. He has freelanced for publications such as GroundUp and Workers World Media.
M&G Data Desk
The Data Desk is the centre for data journalism at Mail & Guardian

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