Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul 8 December 2014

Matriculants: On naming and shaming

On 5 January 2015 the matric results will be released. This time round, they will be published without student names. The announcement of this change came with little fanfare and was thin on information. We do know that the decision involved Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga. The reason provided in the press release was the privacy of matriculants. How should we feel about this change?

Parents will still drag themselves to newspaper headquarters or central locations at ungodly hours. People too young to have by-hearted their ID numbers will still spend the morning with smudged black fingertips. We will still receive all the vital data (although we may still have to go digging for some of the less shiny bits). We will still have provincial and national student and teacher awards and lists of best performing institutions. Excited schools will still call the newspapers in to interview their outstanding students; boosting their brands through the performances of their accolade-laden scholars.

Naturally there will also be a public dissection of concerns.

As a society we will not want for information. We will lose the visibility of results down to individuals. That is all we lose. You and I will not be able to browse the supplement for the names of matriculants we might know. Unless you have been given their ID numbers, you will have to enquire with the student and parents or simply wait for them to tell you how they did.

This is good for a number of reasons. First, we never asked permission in the past. We simply published the names of people in the newspaper, along with what could be considered quite personal information. We never asked them if they were all right with that. Normally we take issue with this kind of thing; more so regarding the names of minors, which many matrics still are. For some reason all of us have a blind spot regarding the matric results, including parents. Maybe it is simply because we never evaluated whether we should have had a say in the matter back when it happened to us. Just because something is tradition, does not mean we should assume that it can’t also be harmful.

So, is it a harmful practice? Should we instead ask for permission to publish names and change the system to an opt-in one? I don’t believe that we should.

The second of my reasons is less about permission and more about protection. Many students place significant pressure on themselves to achieve their desired results. Yet more pressure is placed on them by family members and some educational faculty. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, although we do experience a youth suicide spike at this time of year. It can be devastating not to achieve your goals. It can be excruciating for people far and wide to then start contacting you about it, before you’ve had any time to process what this might mean for your future prospects. What is simply a phone call for many can also be unintentional commentary on a matriculant’s job prospects, tertiary study options, financial aid criteria and many other critical factors.

Worse still, several people are evaluating students’ personal performance against their internal barometers for what constitutes achievement. Funnily enough, the people best placed to remind us that humans are more than a score are the teachers. Educationalists would always like more varied and better options for quantifying both school-leaving readiness and individual talents. Exams are simply the devil we know we can administer, and judging students by them, void of context, is dangerously myopic and often hurtful.

When all your remembered life existed in tight institutional cycles overlaid with the urgency of youth, the perspective that comes with adulthood – that not all opportunities present immediately, that one can rebound from failures or forge new paths in life – is a remote comfort. As youth unemployment grows and the matric devalues in the eyes of employers, the make-or-break narrative swells in significance. Additionally, many school leavers have to leverage bursary, scholarship and loan opportunities owing to severe financial constraints. At the point when we expect the aspirations of youth to reach their peak, the reality is that their scope for positive growth is shrinking.

If we want a matriculant to have the guts to retake a subject for a better mark, to risk sending a paper for a rewrite, to decide to redo the matric year he or she just flunked, we can’t expect a potential public shaming to be their positive jump-off point. Even in cases where the effects of publishing everything are less severe, we lose nothing significant from giving them their space. Simply put, this change is at a minimum positive for some students and neutral for the rest. If we consider that each matriculant will breathe just a little more easily, then the positive effects of this small change become more far-reaching. Either way, let’s spare a rare moment to thank the Department of Basic Education for making a good call. DM

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