Opinionista Nomsa Marchesi 29 November 2019

Department of Basic Education in denial over school drop-out rate

The methods used by the Department of Basic Education to calculate the school drop-out rate are simply wrong. The actual figures are far worse than they are made out to be.

The actual drop-out rate is always a hot topic when the results of the matric exams come out every year. This is to be expected, especially when it remains an ongoing issue. It’s only natural to look at the matric pass rate and the drop-out rate, among other factors, to effectively gauge and determine if our school system is functional and learners are coping well or not.

The matric pass rate for 2018 was 78.2% according to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), but we as the Democratic Alliance maintain that the real matric pass rate was 37.6%.

I recently put a parliamentary question to the minister seeking clarity on what her department’s director-general stated at a portfolio committee meeting. This was to simply get a clear and simple explanation on how the director-general arrived at their drop-out figure of 13% to 17.5%.

In its response, the department argued that by simply looking at the number of Grade 1 enrolments relative to the year they should matriculate is not accurate. They believe, as they stated, that these figures are “inflated because there is a high rate of grade repetition in Grade 1” (Parliamentary Question 1251); and in an attempt to support this statement, the department went on to provide statistics (the Unesco Method) on the percentage of male and female learners who repeated each grade.

Interestingly, these statistics alone are contradictory. You will find that Grade 1 is at the very bottom of this list, which means the failure rate of learners at that grade is not as high as they claim when compared to all the other grades – in fact, it is the lowest. This contradiction is confirmed by the department’s 2016-18 data when it acknowledges that even the drop-out rate is lower in those earlier grades and it worsens in the higher grades. So, in essence, that completely dismisses the argument that Grade 1 enrolment is inflated due to the failure rate.

Clearly, the department has run out of reasons and ways to conceal the truth.

By its own admission, the method of looking at drop-outs for each grade does not give a full picture. According to the department’s own explanation, the consolidated drop-out rate does not support the initial statement of the DG. Basically, after their lengthy explanation, we still don’t have a clear answer to our question.

The above argument is flawed; it does not dismiss our method of calculation because, if we consider the matric pass rate from 2016 which looks at the number of Grade 10 learners who enrolled, then logically these learners should have been writing matric in 2018.

If we break it down: 1,067,075 Grade 10 learners enrolled in 2016 but only 512,735 wrote their matric exam in 2018 (NSC Examination report 2018).

This tells us that 48.1% either have dropped out of school or are repeating grades. This reflection does not even look at the lower grades at all, but simply tells us that there is a problem.

The department goes further to use the General Household Survey as yet another way to calculate the drop-out rate.

This survey looks at people in households who were born between a certain period and would have completed matric by a certain period. According to this survey, only 53.8% of Grade 12s passed (2018) between the ages of 22-25 years, which is also not any better in accuracy as this looks at people who were in school years ago, not currently or even recently.

This is still nowhere near to where we aspire to be as a country.

At least the method we use to calculate the real pass rate looks at relevant data: these are learners who enrol and leave within the period they were meant to be in matric.

After lengthy explanations and tables they gave, the minister could not come up with a concise response to what the actual figure is for the drop-out rate. Even if we were to agree for one moment on their methods to measure the drop-out rate, there is nothing to be proud of.

Further in her response, she says, “Household survey data indicates that in recent years at least 50% of youths complete Grade 12. An alternative method of comparing the number of matric passes for a particular year to the 18-year-old population of the same year suggests that the figure could be as high as 56%” (Parliamentary Question 1251).

This is far too low, and the improvement is far too little. The department refuses to acknowledge this because that would mean admitting they are failing the learners and South Africans at large.

Another glaring issue is the Multiple Exam Opportunity (MEO), which saw 9,007 learners not even pitching up to write their exams. Let me provide more context, 88,828 matric learners opted to write MEO last year. Only a shocking 7.1% passed, which is equivalent to 6,354 learners, and as a result, 73,467 learners who wrote these exams failed (Parliamentary Question 852).

The above figures paint a dark picture, illustrating that the DBE is struggling to deal with poor performance because MEO was meant to help struggling learners to be able to complete their exam and eventually obtain a matric certificate.

We now have it on record that the department through its minister, instead of explaining to the public how they arrived at their 13% to 17.5% drop-out figure, went the long way around it, using a few models including the Unesco Model, in explaining that the current pass rate for matric exams is between 50% and 56%. Since our question was specific and their answer was not, we have to deduce that the drop-out rate stands between 44% and 50%, which is far from their initial statement.

If we are to take South Africa forward and give fair opportunities to our children to succeed, then this government needs to do serious self-reflecting. As the official opposition, we will continue to hold this government to account and offer solutions, but the ANC needs to start leaving its arrogance at the door and allow for constructive criticism which should propel it to put this country first. DM



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