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The emperor has no clothes: Matric exam leaks and rewrites are a sad reflection of our education system

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Dr Sara Black is a Lecturer in Education at the School of Education, Communication and Society, King's College London, where she teaches Masters courses on Education Leadership and Change and Theories of Change in Schooling. She is a former maths teacher and taught trainee South African teachers from 2014 to 2021, helping to launch the Newly Qualified Teachers Project at the University of Cape Town.

The unfortunate truth is that the National Senior Certificate maths curriculum relies heavily on rote learning and past papers are all a mild variation on the same theme. If a pupil got hold of a paper four hours before writing and memorised every question, one almost feels this deserves some kind of applause.

Much has been made in the media of the (un)fairness of rewriting matric maths and physical science paper 2, as announced by the Department of Basic Education in response to both papers being leaked. Teacher unions declared that a rewrite is unfair to pupils, citing the psychological toll in an already extremely stressful year and the small proportion of pupils who were likely to have seen the leaked papers.

The department has defended the decision, saying the integrity of the examination process must be defended “at all costs”. The issue came to a head in the North Gauteng High Court on Friday, 11 December 2020, with the judiciary siding with the unions. But what neither the defence nor the applicants mentioned in their arguments is how exam leaks were predictable in a year wracked by Covid-19, as was the double-down response from the department with a rewrite: both events point to fundamental flaws in the system.

Anyone who has run a casino will tell you: if you combine high stakes with a slim chance of success, you encourage creative grift. What could be higher stakes than the piece of paper that will define the shape of one’s future opportunities?

The National Senior Certificate (NSC) is already, frankly, more of a lotto than a merit-reflecting process, measuring as it does relative linguistic, economic, spatial and cultural privilege (who you were born to, not how hard you have worked). That it is (somewhat) perceived as meritocratic is part of the myth we weave to avoid asking the hard questions. And any threat to that myth – whether through altering the exams in an extraordinary year, or explicit progressing of students to the next grade without mastery of all the previous year’s curriculum… or accepting a slight anomaly among a minority of students’ results, is to be denied. At all costs.

In any given year, the pageant of matric results is more a process of everyone commenting on how beautiful the emperor’s new clothes are than reflecting on the strengths and challenges of our education system. Covid-19 has been the little child in the crowd who said, to the incredulity of every adult: “But he’s naked!” Fewer than half of the pupils who enrolled in Grade 1, 12 years ago, are writing Grade 12 in 2020. Of those who are writing, many have had their chances truncated, narrowed and whittled until they were choosing subjects that offer them very little opportunity, as schools finesse their interpretation of the National Policy pertaining to Programme and Promotion Requirements towards subject offerings that “maximise pass rates”.

Every year pupils are pushed through; the difference with 2020 is that it would be done explicitly. And it is this explicit condoning of the practice of progression that threatens the legitimacy of the myth that things are working okay.

For those throwing themselves on the pyre of maths and science, the pressure is enormous, and the failure rate telling. These subjects are the gatekeepers and their prestige transfers to the schools who can produce satisfactory pass rates, often by counselling out “weak” students whose genuine ability goes undeveloped and undetected for lack of chances to meaningfully learn.  

(Point of clarification: the intrinsic value of less prestigious subjects is not being questioned here, nor the intelligence of students who do not take maths and physical science. Rather, we should question how our education system is constructed to valorise certain types of knowing and the use of certain subjects as gatekeepers of opportunity in a zero-sum game that defines “success” based on others’ “failure”, to the point that those subjects are not about their content, but about competition. No one would take seriously the results of a class who all scored As for maths even if it was deserved, precisely because these grades are meant to play a selecting role, separating the “deserving” from the “undeserving”. As a former high school maths teacher, my classroom was constantly stuffed with pupils who hated maths, but realised it was their gateway to opportunities. Such pressure did both my subject and my pupils an enormous disservice.)

It is telling that the leaked business studies paper was not a candidate for a rewrite – testimony to which subjects “matter” and which do not. The circumstances of the leaks (a few hours earlier) and the disproportionate response (“everyone rewrite”) is also indicative. Frankly, if a pupil got hold of a paper four hours before writing and memorised every question well enough to recall it under exam conditions later, one almost feels such an effort deserves some kind of applause. The unfortunate truth is: the NSC maths curriculum relies quite heavily on rote learning anyway (much to the ire of first-year maths lecturers in universities), and past papers are all a mild variation on the same theme. How “memorising” 2020’s paper in four hours is hugely different from poring over a dozen past papers for weeks on end is not entirely obvious. But it’s not as if 40,000 students sneaked the memo into the exam hall in their masks.

The Herculean effort on the part of the department to sustain the myth of meritocracy is not singular. Another example of this same disavowal of the truth came earlier in 2020 when alternatives were being considered for grades 1 to 11. Several education experts suggested that pupils be progressed to the next grade regardless, with curriculum catch-up plans devised for lost learning and knowledge gaps in 2021.

Such suggestions were flat-out rejected, but the reasons are not entirely clear… because this happens every year anyway. The majority of our pupils accumulate learning backlogs from the early primary years and are progressed through to the next grade – either by moderation fiat when officials declare a school’s marks “not politically acceptable”, or by finesse through strategic design of the school-based assessment. If pupils were forced to repeat based on their learning, the system would grind to a halt.

Every year pupils are pushed through; the difference with 2020 is that it would be done explicitly. And it is this explicit condoning of the practice of progression that threatens the legitimacy of the myth that things are working okay.

They’re not.

It is precisely this myth that falls apart when fewer than half of our pupils get to Grade 12 in the first place. It is the same myth that has given cause to pressure for the General Education and Training (GET) Certificate at the end of Grade 9, since the finessing of school-based assessment to keep the conveyor belt moving produces such unreliable and varied results at the end of the GET phase that TVET colleges cannot make hide nor hair of a student’s Grade 9 assessment report and its validity.

The same myth has given rise to the increased use of National Benchmark Tests for entrance to university. It is this myth that keeps pupils invested in schooling despite the very apparent objective odds that what they will get at school will not serve them well (what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism).

And it is this myth that we need to pierce before we can have honest conversations about the realities of our schooling system and what needs to be changed. We cannot do this while we are so blindly invested in propping up legitimacy through exam rewrites or progression disavowals, where there’s little to be had. Perhaps the high court decision on Friday could start a broader conversation about the stories we tell ourselves and who they serve.

The emperor is naked. It’s time we finally clothed him. DM

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  • M D Fraser says:

    As for all the political gymnastics applied to who gets to go to university in SA, what a joke. Most spend 8 years completing a 3-year Mickey Mouse social science degree and who’s only possibility of employment is in the private sector, where their incompetence comes back to haunt all of us. Until blind qualifying entrance exams is the only criteria for university entrance, we will ‘produce’ substandard graduates who are really unemployable and the brightest and best will continue getting bursaries in other countries, where after they will contribute copiously to their new societies, where merit is the No 1 criteria.

  • Karen Gascoigne says:

    Very sad indeed, but true 🙁 Honesty is not something in great supply unfortunately.

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