Monthly Archives: January 2015

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:

Q&A with Paula Ensor

Paula Ensor picThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the nineteenth interview in the series. Paula Ensor is Professor of Education at the UCT School of Education.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

I left school with the intention of becoming an economist. My involvement in political activity, initially as a student and later as an activist in the liberation movement, cut across that. After some years of more or less full-time political engagement I realised I needed to qualify myself for a job, and so going into teaching was initially a fairly pragmatic decision. I trained in London to teach in further education, and taught mathematics for eight years at Botswana Polytechnic (it is now part of the University of Botswana), after that for 18 months in an inner London secondary school, and since my return to South Africa in 1991, I have been involved in higher education, first at UWC then UCT.

2)   What does your average week look like? 

 I have been on sabbatical leave for the past 12 months, as my term of office as Dean of Humanities [UCT] ended in 2013. So my average week this year has been quite unlike any weeks of the previous 10 years! I have spent most of my time reading and writing.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

Karl Marx’s four volumes of Capital probably shaped my thinking more than anything else I have read. It is an extraordinary intellectual accomplishment, in that from the notion of commodities and commodity exchange he builds an analytical framework to account for the workings of the capitalist system and the production and reproduction of inequality. One can be fully mindful of the critiques of this work but still appreciate the brilliance of his argument and of his literary style. It is very difficult to identify other texts which have had the same impact on my outlook. But in terms of thinking specifically about education, I would add Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

This is a difficult question to answer. For me the most influential thinkers in education are deceased – Piaget, Vygotsy, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Bourdieu, Foucault and Bernstein, for example. This year I have spent a great deal of time revisiting these foundational theorists, as well as engaging with more contemporary thinkers such as Amartya Sen (he reminds us so well how crucially important education is for development and for human flourishing), Randall Collins (I am interested particularly in his work on ritual), Henri Lefebvre (through her work on pedagogy Heather Jacklin introduced me to him and his work on rhythmanalysis) and Judith Butler (whose work on performativity in relation to gender has helped me to think about pedagogy as performance).

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

This is a tricky question as one could answer this question in so many ways, depending on the subfield of education one works in – ECD, primary and secondary schooling, further and higher education. I want to get a better grip on how education as a system articulates. Is there any research out there that provides guidance on this? I have been involved (either through research, or teaching) in different levels of the formal education system, from Foundation Phase through to higher education, but it is not clear to me how, and to what extent (if at all), government policy grasps education as a system rather than as a number of quite distinct silos. OBE had a disastrous impact on schooling; the NQF arguably has had a similarly disastrous effect on post-school (vocational and adult) education and Stephanie Allais’s recent book on the NQF and its effects is a must-read in this context. The parlous state of post-school education impacts negatively on schooling, and on higher education. So an interesting question for me (I wouldn’t claim it as the “most” under-researched area) is how (if at all) government policy understands and promotes the interconnection of the system as a whole. At the level of more personal interest, I want to understand better the regularity of pedagogic practice over time and place, and the difficulties of changing this, a question which for the moment I am placing under the working title of “ritual in pedagogy”.

6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

 To respect the importance of empirical data in educational research, to respect the discipline it imposes, and to understand that working rigorously with data is both demanding and richly enabling.

 7) You have been involved in teacher education at UCT for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

My PhD focused on a PGCE mathematics method course, the experiences of a group of students on this course and their encounters as they entered schools as beginning teachers. I found that the experiences of beginning teachers, and the challenges they faced, were shaped by three factors – access to the principles which framed the teacher education programme they completed at university; educational biography (that is, their own experiences of schools as learners); and the organisation of the school setting they entered as beginning teachers and the level of support they received there. Effective school governance and ongoing collaboration and support amongst teachers was the most crucial factor in assisting beginning teachers plan curriculum coverage, gain access to materials and other resources, organise assessment and feel confident about issues of control. I have read other work since then, especially in the context of mathematics education, and I think these findings have been broadly confirmed.

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

Well, I think I might have enjoyed being an economist. But I would have been very happy as an historian as well.

9)  You have recently returned to the UCT School of Education after being in management at UCT for some years. Have you noticed any changes in the field of education in SA compared to five or ten years ago?

 It is difficult for me to make claims about changes in the field as a whole. With regard specifically to schooling, well, we said goodbye to OBE, which inflicted severe damage on our system, and I think some headway has been made in schools with the development of CAPS and the recognition of the need for high quality textual resources (such as text books and work books) in classrooms. There is now regular, wide-scale assessment (such as ANAs) but is not clear to me what the pedagogic effects of these assessment practices are. In many respects the issues are the same as a decade ago – improving initial and inservice teacher education, strengthening school leadership, changing pedagogic practices in classrooms, understanding better the relationship between home and school, the complexity of linguistic practices in classrooms and so on. So the issues appear to be broadly the same over time, but the precision with which they are articulated seems to be much sharper, and there is a wider array of theoretical resources that researchers are working with.

10)   You have been involved with activist organizations like Equal Education and were yourself part of the anti-apartheid struggle. What do you think is the role of these activist organizations in South Africa and what advice would you give to other similar organizations?

Civic organisations like Equal Education are crucial for mobilising citizens to act in their own interests, and to hold government to account for service delivery across a broad front of issues. An active citizenry is the ultimate defence we have against corruption, cronyism, authoritarianism and the wasteful inefficiency we see so much of at the present time. Civic organisations like Equal Education not only put pressure on government and other agencies to improve the quality of education, but they also build and strengthen civil society in defence of democracy.

11) Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

I am not sure what you mean by technology in education – pens and pencils are already aspects of pedagogic technology! I assume you mean forms of technology which involve the use of computers and other electronic devices and make use inter alia of the internet and specialised educational packages. These offer new ways of accessing knowledge and new modes of communication which are now deeply embedded in contemporary (globalised) culture. As educators it seems to me that in the end we have no option but to give young people access to the opportunities this technology offers. I am sceptical about claims that use of such technology will miraculously transform teaching and learning – I have seen far too many education technology fads consigned to store rooms and cupboards. But it is an unavoidable part of life in a globalised world and potentially very empowering.

12) If you were given a R20million research grant what would you use it for?

R20 million is a great deal of money and we would want to make sure that such a funded research project would have maximum impact on policy and practice. Having read through some of your earlier interviews I am struck by how much more precise we have become in our diagnosis of educational problems and in identifying areas that require further research, and at the same time how broadly these questions cut across the whole system. So the first thing I would do is bring together a group of the most productive and interesting thinkers and researchers in education in South Africa and map out a project which we collectively believed would make the most impact.


Some of Paula’s research can be found here and an extended bio hereSome of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Jill Adler, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.