Defend Truth


Celebrating mediocrity, losing nations


Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

More critical interrogation of the 75 percent matric pass rate is in order. Beyond the glamour of the annual parade of high performers, primarily intended to gloss over the mediocre performance of politicians and bureaucrats, the real figures are not flattering.

Congratulations are in order to the 2017 matriculants who have tried and succeeded, often against extraordinary odds and especially in poor rural areas. The Department of Correctional Services attained a pass rate of rate of 76.7% and exceeded the national average of 75.1 percent. So there will be better citizens or criminals!

According to the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, the provision of basic education in South Africa is influenced by “five internationally accepted tenets, namel, access, redress, equity, quality and efficiency”. While great strides have been made in terms of access, she concedes that “quality and efficiency” needs more attention.

In 2015, Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor, acknowledged: “We haven’t been able to improve the science and maths teaching in our schools … Teacher education requires vigour, professional action on the results of diagnostic analysis, and the commitment of time and resources to achieving success. There is a national consensus that there is underperformance in school education. It is important that we focus on preparing for success from the early grades.”

There is need for more critical interrogation of the 75 percent pass rate, to probe beyond the glitz and glamour of the annual parade of the shy high performers, which is ostensibly held to celebrate their success. However, this ritual is primarily intended to add gloss to the mediocre performance of politicians and bureaucrats.

The real figures are not flattering. In terms university entrance, 28.7% of all matriculants qualify, but not automatically, as the EFF is suggesting. Universities have their own entrance requirements in different faculties, and poor performance in maths will exclude the majority from science, engineering and commerce degrees.

In 2006, 1,185,198 pupils entered the formal school system at grade 1 level. There were 534,484 full-time matric candidates in 2017. A total of 401,435 passed, and 133,049 were unsuccessful. It is very disturbing that 650,714, or 54.9 percent of the grade 1 cohort from 2006 dropped out of school – another lost generation? There are many reasons for this high dropout rate. A major factor is that “about two-thirds of South African children do not live in the same household as their biological parents. Poverty and adult illiteracy often prevent parents who are present from getting more involved in their children’s education”.

According to UNESCO, globally about “750 million youth and adults still cannot read and write, and 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills. This results in an exclusion of low-literate and low-skilled youth and adults from full participation in their communities and societies”.

It is now well known that SA has serious problems with literacy at the primary school level. In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which tested about 320‚000 in 50 countries, and South Africa was placed last. More specifically, 78 percent in Grade 4 cannot read with meaning and understanding. According to the PIRLS study, reading ability has not improved since 2011 – a recipe for a losing nation.

Government is well aware of the problem. According to Minister Naledi Pandor: “It was impossible to achieve sustained success in matric if South Africa continued to have primary schools that did not teach reading, writing and numeracy. Our current commitment to our children and their parents is to improve the performance of our schools in general and the achievement of our learners in maths and science. Yet the evidence that poverty undermines education is overwhelming. I believe, I do, that schools can make a difference to disadvantage and that they can overcome patterns of inherited poverty.”

According to a research report released by the University of Stellenbosch in February 2017, “Poor quality education for the majority of learners leads to poor labour market outcomes, which in turn beget poor quality education for the next generation. The persistence of deep inequality two decades after apartheid is a powerful indictment of the South African education system’s failure to overcome past injustices, despite considerable shifts in government spending to poor schools.”

In terms of resources for teaching and learning, the government is trying hard: about 6% of the country’s GDP is spent on education, compared to the average of 4.8% in EU countries. More specifically, in 2017, South Africa allocated R240 billion, at 17.5%, the largest single portion of its budget, to basic education.  Yet in January 2017, the influential magazine, The Economist, contended, “South Africa has one of the world’s worst education systems.”

There is concern about the quality of teacher training, competence, and the politicisation of the noble profession. Many who teach matric pupils, and are assessors, would not pass the examination. After scandals relating to the sale of teaching positions, there is a view that education in South Africa has been ‘captured’ by the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). This was succinctly summarised by Mbulelo Nguta:Sadtu will stop at nothing to pillage the entire education system in order to completely capture it, be it by selling teacher positions to their comrades for sex, goats, sheep and cattle or by corrupting the bureaucracy to run education in their interest rather than that of learners.”

Education specialist, Professor Jonathan Jansen, has argued that government should acknowledge that there was crisis in education: “Right now, we have a problem of absolutely no authority in schools, no culture of learning, absolutely no accountability to learning … The schools of the poor are routinely disrupted or trashed by adults, by unions, activists, gangsters, without any effective intervention.”

Education is a passport to a better life that the ANC government has been promising the poor for many years. Trapped in a vicious cycle of inequality, impoverishment and disadvantage and in the absence of urgent state intervention to improve teacher performance, this poverty will be perpetuated from one generation to the next.

As UNESCO has emphasised, “Literacy is also a driver for sustainable development in that it enables greater participation in the labour market; improved child and family health and nutrition; reduces poverty and expands life opportunities.”

Success generally, but particularly in education, requires personal tenacity, discipline, committed teachers, concerned parents and efficient government support systems. In any form of education and training, from primary to tertiary levels, merit and ability is paramount, otherwise there will be a celebration of mediocrity – typical of losing nations. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.


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