Education woes go far deeper than matric pass rate [my Sunday Times article on Matric 2014]


[This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 11th of January 2014]

It’s at times like these that I sympathise with the Department of Basic Education and Minister Motshekga. Like the Goldilocks problem, it seems that nothing can be ‘just right.’ If the matric pass rate goes up, then standards are falling, but if it goes down then interventions are failing. Yet with the new, more rigorous CAPS curriculum we did expect the 2014 matric results to come down slightly. Yet there are many other problems we should be discussing. This year, as with previous years, not enough official attention was given to the high dropout rate. Of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 48 wrote matric in 2014, 36 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. I’ve been told by some that now is not the right time to talk about this. But when is the right time to talk about dropout? June? September? It’s never comfortable or convenient to talk about half a million children dropping out of school and facing unemployment or menial work – something that happens year in and year out. And lest you think these students are going to FET colleges or vocational training, let’s look at the stats. Household surveys show that only 1% of youths who did not hold a matric certificate held some other non-Grade 12 school certificate or diploma issued by an FET college for example. The rest have no educational qualifications whatsoever. It is highly problematic that around 60% of South African youth end up with no national or widely recognised educational qualification, despite spending a relatively high number of years in education. To be clear, the aim of education should not be to get everyone to matric. Rather we need trustworthy and credible exams at the grade 9 level, and legitimate vocational options with clear occupational roles that students are being prepared for.

This year we were also made aware of a surge in matric cheating with 5305 candidates implicated in 2014, more than ten times as many as in 2013 (473). Furthermore, the findings of ‘group copying’ by Umalusi (the quality assurance body) raises serious concerns about the involvement and complicity of teachers, departmental officials and examinations officers.


Much has already been said in the media about the drop in mathematics performance and the mathematics crisis in South Africa. Let me rather talk about another subject that should be receiving as much attention: English First Additional Language (EFAL). In South Africa students take at least one home language and one first additional (i.e. second) language. EFAL is the largest single subject in matric with 81% of all matric students writing the exam in 2014. One might expect weak performance in this subject given that most international assessments that South Africa participates in show that our students perform two to four grade levels behind their peers in reading literacy. However, the 2014 pass rate for English First Additional Language was 98%. This is largely because EFAL is set at the same standard as all the other First Additional Language subjects which are relatively easy and prioritize communication. Yet, as the 2014 Ministerial Task Team on the NSC identifies, “EFAL does not and cannot fulfil the same purpose in the curriculum as the other 10 First Additional Languages.” This is primarily because the purpose of EFAL for most students is not only communicative efficiency, but also to prepare students to learn all their other subjects in English (their second language) and to prepare them for the world of work. The Task Team report goes on to explain that most of these students are only ‘semi-lingual’ in either their home language or in English. One only needs to look at the EFAL curriculum and the EFAL exams to know why. In 2010 the EFAL exams were reviewed by a number of international benchmarking authorities. The Cambridge International Examinations body concluded that “reliance on testing memorisation and recall, rather than critical thinking and analytical and evaluation skills” was a major problem. The Australian Board of Studies New South Wales did not mince their words when they explained that “The cognitive levels assessed in the examination questions are heavily weighted towards lower-order skills…The grammatical activities themselves are meaningless and reflect a drill and practice approach to language learning which does not support the need to develop students’ language for work and participation in the broader community.” These are the same sentiments that are repeatedly expressed by business leaders and those in higher education institutions in South Africa.

The Task Team report also highlighted the low levels of English proficiency among teachers for whom English is a second language, a severe problem that is widely acknowledged in the research literature. Yet interventions to improve teacher subject knowledge in English are meagre and wholly inadequate. During the course of 2013 South African teachers who have English as a second language had a maximum of three hours of English training, and in four provinces they had none. You do not become proficient in a language with 2-3 hours of training. This is not learning how to play Sudoku. The two main reasons for the low levels of in-service teacher training are firstly that there are so few high-quality training programs available to teachers (none of which are properly evaluated), and secondly that teacher training is seen as too expensive for the Department. This is largely because many teachers, vigorously backed by their union, refuse to attend training courses unless there is additional pay for it. This makes training inordinately expensive. Alternatively the training must happen during school hours, which is basically standard practice across the country (despite it being against policy). Yet all of this is quite ridiculous and unnecessary. All South African teachers are already being paid for 80 hours of professional development per year as part of their existing employment contracts (see Government Gazette, Notice 222 of 18 February 1999, Chapter A, Number 3.2, Section D). Yet nationally representative data show that the average South African teacher spends less than 40 hours on professional development per year?

More questions than answers

We need to end our infantile obsession with the matric pass rate and move on to talking about the real issues affecting education. Poor performance in matric is rooted in weak foundations in grades 1-3. Rather than frown about the two percentage point drop in the pass rate, we should be asking why only one in three students who took maths or science scored above 40% in either subject in 2014? Or why so few take these subjects. Or why 40% of our matrics are taking Business Studies and 20% are taking Tourism, when in reality these are empty subjects that are ill conceived and prepare them for nothing? Researchers at Wits have highlighted this problem before, with Stephanie Allais concluding that, “Vast numbers of our children enrol for semi-vocational subjects that are not teaching them either robust academic skills by building concepts and knowledge, nor preparing them for work in any meaningful way.” Is there any plan to reform these curricula and the way that they are taught? Is there any commitment from the Department that from next year they will report the ‘real’ matric pass rate (the throughput rate from grade 8) in addition to the traditional matric pass rate? No single number can capture the health of our education system, the sooner we realise this the better.


Some other links to comments I’ve made on Matric 2014 results:

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