Over the years, the government has emphasised the narrative that our education system is improving based on the annual matric pass rates.
(Deaan Vivier/Gallo Images/Beeld)
Every January is an exciting and nerve-wracking period as high school learners, parents and teachers wait in anticipation for the matric results. The country uses these results as a yardstick to measure the quality and progress of South Africa’s education system.
Over the years, the government has emphasised the narrative that our education system is improving based on the annual matric pass rates. For instance, the Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has said that 572 983 candidates passed the 2023 matric examinations, an overall pass rate of 82.9% — the highest recorded since 1994.
Taking these numbers at face value can create the impression that there’s progress in the system of our public education. But this conceals the deep inequalities in public education; the government has perfected the art of distorting the true picture of the crisis. The annually televised spectacle and the surface-level calculation of our matric pass rates are done for political purposes. This methodology suits both the politicians’ electoral objectives and the aspirations of school principals. The plight of the learners and their families is a secondary matter.
In particular, the focus on matric results erases other key aspects of public education. First, we are not told about the quality of learners that the system produces and what they have actually learned. Second, we don’t know if the system produces learners with skills that are fit for purpose. Third, the system is unable to account for the whereabouts of millions of people who do not make it through to matric within the 12-year period. Fourth, we are not told about the tactics that some schools use to eliminate “underperforming learners” in lower grades.
In other words, we are in the dark about the details that really matter concerning public education.
This prevents us from having the right conversation about our public education. To dig deeper into these details would unearth many structural issues that the government has failed to address according to the expectations of our democracy. These include issues such as overcrowded classrooms, insufficient teachers, poor administration, defunding, poorly trained teachers and the misallocation of resources. All these weaken public education, preventing it from doing what it is supposed to do in the long-term — which is to eradicate inequality.
The annual January announcements of matric results do not focus on these matters because they require government employees to do an excellent, diligent job, daily. In addition, they require systematic planning at levels of the system, from early childhood development (ECD) up to matric. Instead, the easier option — to hide the truth and claim easy victories — is chosen.
But the evidence cannot be hidden. The quality of the education of many matriculants is poor because the problem is ignored at its beginning. The report of the 2030 Reading Panel convened by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka shows that learners in grade R and grade 2 struggle with recalling the basic alphabetic order. In addition, the report of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study shows that 82% of the learners in grade 4 cannot read for meaning.
These revelations are damning, and it is not surprising that the 2022 National Senior Certificate Diagnostic Report found that only 28% of those matric learners who passed in 2022 managed to get a mark of 50% and above in mathematics and physical science. The report also noted that there was a low performance on these two subjects on all questions in the examination that required abstract thinking and problem-solving skills.
In university terms, which caps a pass mark at 50% minimum, this means 72% of the matric learners who wrote the 2022 final matric paper for mathematics and physical science failed. These problems are encountered at matric level but their beginning was at the ECD level. The overinvestment in matric learners as a panacea of our public education crisis is an incorrect approach and it will continue to weaken the products of this system.
A more productive intervention to solve this problem would require a closer cooperation between all stakeholders across all levels. Parents, learners, teachers, government, business, and civil society must reimagine this system, and demand for it to be closely integrated and resourced to build a quality public education system.
There must be a funding regime that synergises all levels of public education and there must be a symbiotic articulation of a common curriculum with targeted skills at foundational, intermediate, and senior phases. This begins with prioritising the ECD level, where children will be taught to love reading, writing, calculating, speaking and problem-solving.
Literacy and numeracy should be the basis of childhood development at home and in school. These are the difficult tasks that must be done to improve education.
If we are serious about discontinuing apartheid inequalities, it is time we do away with these frivolous political events that claim easy victories and mask problems at the expense of the future that our children deserve.
Oyisa Sondlo-Mzileni is a PhD sociology candidate at Nelson Mandela University, and an intern at the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung (FES). She writes in her personal capacity.