Defend Truth


Matric pass rate: On the road to Nobody


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

I visited the village of Nobody in Limpopo recently. When the subject turned to education, the contents of the discussion came as no surprise. Our people are sick and tired of the press release interpretation of our country’s matric results, they are sick of the dumbing down in schools, and they are sick of the lack of dignity imposed on our children.

I drive past the village of Nobody in Limpopo on the way to Motapo. We crawl our way through the gravel roads, navigating the potholes until we reach the village of “Ma Gogo” who has played a significant role in raising my kids. We are going to celebrate the 94th birthday of her mother, “grand Gogo.” What history she has seen: the brutality of dispossession; freedom; the continuing struggle to realise what we fought for. She has lived through it all. I could spend days listening to her wisdom.

She is fiercely independent with no hearing aids and no spectacles. Her first words to me are, “I cook and take care of the garden and house.” The trees are heavy with mangoes, her backyard with the growing maize plants and spinach. It reminds me of my childhood. Most of our food came from the backyard.

As we sit around the table, bustling with the excitement of visitors from Johannesburg and surrounded by her great-grandchildren, the subject turns to education.  Ma Gogo says: “My grandchildren go to the Catholic school. They get a good education there. There is discipline there. We pay R500 per year. But we know that teachers are there and learning takes place. We are grateful to the Catholic Church.”

Why can we not demand the same quality of education from every public school?

There are teachers present. They are passionate and vocal. The subject opens the floodgates. “Many pupils still do not have textbooks; our toilets are a disaster. Many girls do not come to school during menstruation because of the stench and unhygienic conditions. Even in our homes we rarely have water.”

Why do we have such a paralysis? What is the role of the principal? I ask myself what I would do. I would get into my car and drive to the local education department office. I would bang on the door of the bureaucrat in charge and demand the textbooks and load them into my car and take them back to the school I run. Why are our principals so helpless?

My mind turns back to the news of the matric results earlier in the week. In a recent radio interview on the 73.9% national matric pass rate, Panyaza Lesufi, spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education, concluded: “One day we will provide our children with quality education.”

I look at the children playing soccer in the makeshift sports grounds. They are barefooted. Surely every one of them has a right to a quality education. They are children of Somebody, like you and me. Why should they have to wait the ghost of Apartheid to make its final exit 19 years into our democracy?

I fully support the NGO Equal Education, which has campaigned around its demands for norms and standards to be enforced by the national department. Its analysis points to the physical impediments to a functioning education system. Only 8% of schools have functioning libraries. Over 3,600 schools lack electricity and 2,400 lack running water; 46% of schools still reportedly use pit latrines.

In the Eastern Cape, over 300 ‘mud schools’ still remain. Compounded by overcrowding, with classes of over 50 pupils, the low morale and inadequate subject knowledge by teachers makes for a toxic mix.

The Minister of Basic Education earlier this year gazetted draft norms and standards that caused uproar amongst education activists who accused the national department of deceitfulness. “We are left with no option but to go back to court, because the drafts show continued disregard for our Constitution and its commitment to the right to quality education.”

Section 27’s Mark Heywood said: “I see a sense of greater confidence amongst parents, pupils and communities. Daily we are receiving reports of schools without textbooks, schools without proper toilets and water, teachers who are absent and positions not filled. Communities are sick and tired of excuses and broken promises. They want action immediately.”

Our country cries out for decisive leadership. What is the problem with government spelling out detailed minimum norms and standards? I think back to the 10-point plan developed in 2008, co-chaired by Zweli Mkhize (now Treasurer General of the ANC) and myself as then-Chairperson of the DBSA, in an inclusive process which involved the teacher unions, government, academics, NGOs, business and training institutions.

It was our decisive plan of action to reverse the rot in our education system. It resolved, amongst other priorities, to ensure that there was discipline in schools. That teachers are in class, on time, teaching and using textbooks; that effective evaluation and performance of teachers should be linked to remuneration. We agreed to strengthen management capacity to ensure working districts and schools. We committed to a National Consultative Forum dedicated to clarifying the non-negotiable performance targets for key stakeholders, and the monitoring thereof and mobilisation of communities at all levels to fight for quality education; we undertook to create the environment for learning and teaching, such as a nutrition programme, and addressing the need for norms and standards of basic infrastructure for schools.

Where are we almost five years later?

Today we are looking at the first generation of ‘born frees’ coming through our education system. Let us consider the arithmetic. A national government report states that the number of children that enrolled for grade one in 2001 was over a million. These would be the matriculants of 2012. Only 623,897 candidates sat for the NSC exams, according to the Department of Basic Education. This means that only 62% of all the children that enrolled for school in 2001 wrote their matric exams 12 years later.

This literally means that less than 46% or 462,924 of these children that started their schooling in 2001 obtained their National Senior Certificates in 2012! Over half a million kids have disappeared from our system. That is an indictment on our democracy and a national emergency.

We should be outraged as a society, demanding answers from our policy makers.

I try to understand the meaning of the matric certificate that students who passed have. I am struck by the comments of Professor Jonathan Jansen, who I recognise as the foremost authority on education in our country. “If a black student requires from you different treatment and lower academic demands because of an argument about disadvantage, tell them to take a hike. If you have lower academic expectations of black children because of what they look like, or where they come from, that is the worst kind of racism.”

He elaborates further, “Our society, schools and universities have adjusted expectations downwards, especially in relation to black students, and that is dangerous in a country with so much promise for excellence. If passing matric means a 40% in a home language, 40% in two other subjects, and 30% in three subjects, what kind of self-respecting nation accepts this level of mediocrity? “

I go back to my days as union organiser working with largely illiterate hostel dwellers in harsh and brutal conditions. These were the pioneers in the fight for democracy. How often I would be told, “We are thirsty for knowledge. We want to understand the law, to learn the skills of negotiations and collective bargaining. We want to improve our situation and earn better wages. We want our children to have a quality education that we never had the right to. We want to build the foundations of our movement for political freedom; because we want a government that will deliver an education and economic opportunity for our children to lead a better life than we live.”

They did not want mediocrity. They did not want their children to have a certificate that was not worth the paper it was written on. They wanted their children to have the dignity of choosing their jobs.

As Professor Jansen continues, “Mathematics is the gold standard for assessing the real meaning of the senior certificate results. So what does the mathematics pass rate tell us? That 46.3% of pupils passed mathematics. That the 104,033 students who passed include everyone with as low a mark as 30% and above. A far better determination would be the number who passed with a 50% mark. By this measure, only 41,586 or 18.51% of pupils who wrote mathematics passed, which in turn is 8.38% of all pupils who sat for the NSC examinations; and the number that wrote mathematics is 40,000 fewer than those who wrote in 2010.”

The World Economic Forum has since released its most recent Annual Global Competitive Report for 2012-2013. South Africa ranked 52nd out of 144 countries surveyed, which is impressive for a relatively young democracy and a developing economy.

Despite our overall competitive ranking, key areas, essential for the future of our children, are extremely lacking. We are ranked 132nd overall for the quality of primary education, 143rd in the quality of math and science education, 111th in internet access in schools; while the overall quality of our education system is ranked 140th.   

The Department of Higher Education confirms, “In spite of continually increasing levels of spending on foundation phase education, the test results of learners in grades 3 to 6 remain some of the worst in the world. A majority of pupils entering the intermediate phase remain largely illiterate and experience difficulty as they progress through the system.”

We should have the minister, MEC’s, principals, and teacher union leaders in the dock, all charged with treason and sabotage of the future and hopes of our children and country.  And for those demagogues who entrench the current status quo and fling empty rhetoric at NGOs that are fighting for the right of our children to quality education, I have these words for you: