Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul 14 November 2013

Another brick in the wall

What is scoring 100% in Life Orientation worth to a prospective employer? Is barely passing math literacy somehow worth more than doing very well in a subject like tourism? Is passing math on the dot at 30% enough to get learners into tertiary study? Will they cope there?

As of the 2011 census, children in South Africa numbered 18.5 million.  The majority of those children are either in public education or have yet to start school. Their prospects; set against the backdrop of a failing education system and crushing unemployment, are bleak. Their ability to squeeze the most advantage out of the system is hampered by the lack of true choice offered in school. Worse still, we have a society that has led them to believe it’s all for their own good.

How do you turn around a failing system? Decades of organisational theory teaches us to trim the fat, standardise what we keep and then pour our focus into our weakest areas. In a way, South Africa has been doing just that. Those who call the shots made two languages, a math subject and life orientation compulsory. That’s a whopping four out of six subjects being determined for learners.

The effect that this causes is twofold. First, it trims the fat in the form of electives that the government will realistically have to be providing in each school.  If you only have two slots left, you’re going to go for popular choices believed to have the most utility. Physics, perhaps. Accounting.  You’re not going to sit around grumbling about why you can’t also study drama or music or programming.

The second effect is that this allows the government to get maximum benefit from its efforts to standardise. If it can improve math or math literacy, or if it makes life orientation very, very simple, it’s a boost that applies across the board on matric examination results. When asked, government points to math-and-science related skills shortages in South Africa, leading many to conclude that the generation matriculating with math has a better shot at both employment and fixing the economy.  Government is seen to be fixing our math deficiency problem and helping along our unemployment problem. Everybody wins, right?

Not quite. This year, the World Economic Forum ranked the quality of South Africa’s maths and science education second-last in the world.  Private research from the Centre for Development and Enterprise found that the majority of grade 6 teachers in South Africa cannot answer a math question that their pupils ought to be able to answer. By grade 9 learners are already 2 years behind the global benchmark. One must assume that the effect is compounded by the time they sit their matric exams. What all this effectively means is that everyone in a state school is being forced to study a subject that South Africa is absolutely ill-equipped to teach them.

And the evidence is there: the majority of learners actually take math literacy – not math, and the majority of learners who took pure mathematics in matric last year failed their exams. Let me just state that again: the majority of learners who took pure mathematics in matric last year failed their exams. They went to school for 12 years and came out unable to achieve 30% in a compulsory subject.

What about life orientation?  First, there is nothing stopping the teaching of life orientation to a lesser and non-examined extent. Second, what does a syllabus of ‘career options’ and ‘lifestyle choices’ really offer a prospective employer of matriculants? How does it translate into a foundation for any kind of tertiary study? The same is true of an additional language.  If a learner already has one language teaching them how to read, to write a formal letter and an essay, do they need another unless pursuing a career that requires it?

The saddest part about the whole system is that the worst results are found at the poorest schools; the no-fee schools. These schools serve the poorest communities. The more poor a community, the less able it is to absorb a high school dropout or a matriculant who cannot find a job.  The system starts losing them in primary school, seals the deal in high school and then creates the worst fallout in places that need the most help.

Now, within the context of South Africa, how would you want to equip yourself? I invite you to put yourself in the shoes of the average grade 9 learner in a township school, making this decision. How can you get the most out of the broken system, maximising your chances of future success?

There are a few scenarios:

You’re really bad at something.

You should have the choice to avoid it. This is especially true for math and science if you know you go to a school with no lab and terrible teachers. If you’re bad at something in grade 9 and have bad odds at improving it, you shouldn’t be forced to take a subject that will probably result in an F on your Senior Certificate. You’re also less likely to join the ranks of the 500 000 odd drop outs your generation will produce if you can avoid disengaging because of constant failure.

You’re really good at something.

You should have the choice to maximise what you’re good at.  Good at languages?  You should get the chance to take three or even four.  Speaking English, Afrikaans, Zulu and French, with tourism as fifth subject and hospitality studies as a sixth makes sense.  Because you’ve practiced more, you’re more likely to do well in your tertiary training or studies.  And because you’ve chosen your strongest ability, you’ll have more impressive results to take into the job market.

You don’t know what you want to do.

A lot of people don’t know what they want to do after school. Many who can, study math and science so that their options are open when they eventually decide on a university course. Those in this situation who are also doing badly in math and science should be able to pick the 5 or 6 subjects that will boost their chances relative to their realistic options. If you’re looking at studying a short course or a one year course at Boston College because you know it’s all you can afford, then keeping your options open for university and risking doing badly, makes no sense.

You do know what you want to do.

Many people have specific objectives. For example, you may want to start your own business. This may mean you still take two languages and math/math literacy but then choose business studies, consumer studies and computer literacy.  In a scenario like this, life orientation has little benefit to offer, whereas the other subject choices directly add practical value.  Even if you don’t get the kind of high marks that come from picking easier subjects, you are still more equipped to achieve your goals.

Caveat: these scenarios alone are not a solution. There are many challenges that must be faced: under-utilisation and stigmatisation of FET colleges, rural education as a whole, government inflating results, teacher-training and retention, high school and university dropout rates, the gap between passing a subject at 30% and the grade at which a university will accept you (usually double that or higher), lack of realistic goal setting by parent and learners, pressuring government to deliver on elective subjects, the misconception that the achievement of a matric, any matric, will get you a job and so on.

What these scenarios are meant to illustrate is how choice allows those who have the most to worry about after school, the ability to get maximum utility from their schooling. The scenarios treat compulsory subjects as an opportunity cost. It must also be said that by reducing the numbers of learners taking math, math literacy, a second language or life orientation, the quality of education for learners who continue to choose those subjects should theoretically be higher. After all, a system designed for where the average learner in it is barely passing or outright failing is very different to one where the average learner chose to be there and can cope with the matter.

The idea here is to swap government’s straw man of quantity (the real numbers of learners matriculating with a subject at 30% or higher) for quality (the percentage of learners doing well enough to realistically get further training or a job). The ideal, of course, is to achieve both quantity and quality but we still have to fix the system so that it can deliver both.  Until such a time as the education system can offer all its learners a fair chance of success, it has no right to force them into paths of failure. DM

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