South Africa

South Africa

Matric: To pass or not to pass?

Matric: To pass or not to pass?

Apologies to the class of 2014: it doesn't matter whether you pass or fail matric. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, we know how much you were looking forward to flashing the pass rate in January. On Tuesday, a seminar at Wits University heard about the redundancy of the pass/fail system. There was little consensus, however, on how to fix education in a severely unequal society. By GREG NICOLSON.

In her position paper “How does matric measure the health of our education system?” Stephanie Allais, from the Wits School of Education and author of Selling Out Education, narrows the debate on the Grade 12 assessment to the essential questions. What assessment system can support the school education, convey what students have learned, and how should those results be reported? And what’s the purpose of secondary education and what certification can assist the future of learners?

As the class of 2014 wait for their results early next month and the government looks forward to a further increase in the matric pass rate, Allais presented her paper on Tuesday at Wits University’s WISER institute in discussion with the university’s Dean of Humanities Professor Ruksana Osman and Nick Taylor, CEO of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit.

Allais suggested scrapping the dichotomy of pass and fail. Instead we could issue all students with a certificate stating their grades, regardless of what mark they achieve. “The general logic of a pass/fail mark is that learners cannot proceed to a next level of study or attain a specific job. But all learners leave school, with or without a certificate. It would be better for our system if they all left with a certificate, some with good grades, and others with poor grades,” writes Allais.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has cited the steady increase of matric pass rates since 2010 as a sign of the improving education system. It jumped from 60% in 2009 to over 78% in 2013, with Jacob Zuma’s administration meeting its goal of surpassing 75% a year early. Announcing the 2013 results in January, Motshekga said the mood was captured by a quote from Reverand Jesse Jackson – “Both tears and sweat are salty, but they render a different result. Tears will get you sympathy; sweat will get you change.”

On Tuesday, the experts acknowledged some improvements in the system but agreed the pass/fail certificate is largely worthless. Allais said it distracts us from the real issues and prevents a discussion on improving quality of learning. The certificate defining whether a student passes or fails has little value as further education institutions assess grades and other factors. Pass figures, she said, “is a meaningless conversation.”

She admitted providing all students with a certificate of their marks may not substantially change the system, but it could make room to discuss issues of curriculum and teaching.

Taylor agreed the focus on pass rates distorts the system. Using the example of Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi’s threat to fire any district officials where the pass rate drops, Taylor said the system is manipulated in the pursuit of political goals. To reach pass rates and keep their jobs, teachers cull poor students before their final years, students are encouraged to take simpler subjects, and exam papers are made easier to pass.

The result is that learners who make it through the system aren’t ready for further study. “They are not prepared to cope with the kind of conceptual level required at university level,” said Taylor. “The pass rate is not an indication of the quality of the system at all. It’s a reflection of how things are being manipulated,” he added.

Osman took issue with some of the points, but said the huge amount of students leaving school with no further study or work prospects is arguably “the most dangerous ticking time bomb that our society has created.” Her criticism of the proposal to scrap the pass/failure system focused on the lack of effect such a move would have in the context of larger issues at play and the need to address structural problems.

She pointed out how inequality inhibits an improvement in the education system and the severe lack of post-school opportunities for learners. She suggested the system needs to reform to better understand and reflect what’s needed in communities. “What works for whom? Why? How?” asked Osman. “The problem facing our education system is not whether we have grades or high stakes exams, it is the growing inequality facing our education sector,” she added, suggesting pedagogy must work within our stratified society.

Wits School of Education head Professor Jean Baxen said the focus on matric is misplaced. “I think the gaze on education is not focused on the right place,” said Baxen. To improve the system it’s crucial to focus on primary education from Grade 4 to 7 “where we are failing our children most severely”. Education can be improved by focusing more on early childhood development and the mid-phase of schooling, she said.

Looking at the issue of teacher education, often criticised as a core failure and cause for poor quality teaching, Baxen suggested new teachers are being taught with old techniques while the social, political and economic context is ignored. “The current teacher education programmes rely on constructs that don’t meet the reality that our students face,” she said. Often we’re preparing students for a utopia they will never reach.

Teacher unions are often blamed for the education crisis, but during the discussion the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union was only mentioned briefly with Allais saying they’re part of the solution in improving wages and conditions that will attract better teachers to the job.

The matric results will be announced early in the new year. Many of those who get a pass will find themselves without an opportunity for further study or work. DM

Read more:

  • Why the matric pass rate is not a reliable benchmark of education quality in Africa Check
  • How does matric measure the health of our education system? In WISER.

Photo: School pupils from the Minerva High School in Alexandra township.


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