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‘Decision not to rewrite has caused a crisis,’ says basic education head

Basic education director general Mathanzima Mweli said on Monday that the high court’s ruling on Friday that set aside the rewrite of two matric exam papers that had been leaked has “plunged” education into an “unprecedented crisis”. 

Because the department did not know the extent of the leak of the maths paper two and physical science paper two the most logical thing was to have grade 12s rewrite the exams, Mweli said in a recorded statement. He said the “credibility, the integrity, the reliability and the fairness of the examination is at stake” following the judgment on Friday by Pretoria high court judge Norman Davis, who  set aside the decision to rewrite and declared it unlawful. 

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced the decision to rewrite the two subjects that were leaked hours before they were written two weeks ago. She had said the decision was arrived at after a preliminary investigation, which could not establish the extent of the leak and that a rewrite was a way to preserve the integrity of the matric exams. 

Four applicants —  individual learners, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and lobby group AfriForum  — brought an urgent application before the court asking that the decision be reviewed, set aside and declared unconstitutional. 

Davis ruled that the argument that the small percentage of learners who had access to the two papers has “irrevocably damaged the integrity” of the papers, which meant that the results cannot be certified by quality assurer Umalusi, cannot be sustained and therefore it was not justified to subject “hundreds of thousand of innocent learners” to a rewrite. 

The maths exam was to have been rewritten tomorrow (15 December) and science on Thursday. 

Mweli said that in a meeting on Saturday Motshekga, MECs of education and heads of department studied the judgment and advised him not to challenge the judgment, “… but rather exonerate learners from the pain of having to wait for another judgment. And therefore there won’t be a rewrite of mathematics paper two and physical science paper two as initially planned.”

He added that the court had to deal with a complex matter in a short space of time and that it might not have had time to deal with all the aspects of the situation. 

“So the difficulty about the judgment is that it has plunged the basic education sector, and to some extent the education and training system in South Africa, into an unprecedented crisis,” he said. 

He said it was difficult to anticipate what Umalusi would say about the matric results once the department presented its report of the exam to it. 

On Friday, Umalusi said it could not preempt the outcome of its processes regarding the approval of the matric results. “The council needs to implement all its quality assurance processes before a final decision about the credibility and integrity of national examinations can be made.”

Umalusi’s chief executive, Mafu Rakometsi, said in court papers that if the decision is set aside there is “grave risk” that learners might not receive their certificates until the investigation into the leak is finalised.

Mweli said the extent of the leak was still unknown but that latest developments show that it is “much wider” than the department had initially thought. 

The department’s preliminary investigation report had found that the maths paper had reached 200 learners and that 61 learners could have had access to the science paper. 

He said the court had restricted the department from proceeding with a rewrite even though the logic was to have a rewrite since the department could not confine the leak to a specific number of learners or a district. 

“If you do not know the extent of the leak the logical step is a rewrite; if you know the extent of the leak you confine the rewrite if you need a rewrite — or you block the results of the learners who are involved. 

“Lingering questions will remain and it is unfair for the class of 2020. All our analysis and indicators are that this class potentially could perform better than previous cohorts and to have this blemish on their results is extremely unfair.”

Mweli alerted schools through a circular on Sunday that there will no longer be a rewrite. 

In a statement on Friday, Sadtu said that the ruling by Davis had “saved thousands of learners from a grave injustice that would live with learners for the rest of their lives”. 

The union added that the judgment sent a “clear message to all of us as leaders to remain sensitive to the plight and future of our children. We need to foreground the interest of learners and remain rational when we take decisions which will affect them.” 

The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, which had called the decision for a rewrite an “overreaction”, said the judgment by Davis vindicated its stance. 

“In the end sanity prevailed and we commend the court for a sober consideration of the facts … We believe that the minister and the DG [director general] know deep down that this has been the correct outcome for a very unfortunate situation. We call on them to accept the judgement and to rather expand their energies on seeing that those responsible for the leaks be brought to justice and to leave it to the irregularities committee to deal with the matter.”

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

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