Defend Truth


The quality of education that our learners get is quite possibly the biggest obstacle to their success


Baxolile Nodada is Member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance and is the Shadow Minister of Basic Education.

We should all be asking whether learners truly benefit from the 12 years (or more) they spend in South African classrooms and if the National Senior Certificate is worth it.

While successful learners all across the country are celebrating their matric results and with a cohort of new grade 1s just starting their academic careers, it is apt to question whether the National Senior Certificate (NSC) is a true measure of the learners’ knowledge, skills and personal development. Is it time South Africa rather moves to continuous assessments like other countries?  

Before we can determine the best possible solution to benefit the learners, a critical look at the state of education in the country is necessary.  

During the technical briefing on Thursday 19 January 2023, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) Director-General, Hubert Mathanzima Mweli, remarked that the issue plaguing the education system is not dropouts but a high failure rate.  

I agree with him on the high failure rate and appreciate his candour, but the country’s high dropout rate cannot be ignored. Both these issues deserve Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s urgent attention.  

The high dropout rate and the high failure rate are symptoms of the same disease. StatsSA’s 2021 General Household Survey revealed that 21.2% of learners drop out of school as a result of poor academic performance. The 2022 dropout rate for the matric cohort was 31.8 %, and the real pass rate only 54.6%.  

Other roots for both failure and dropouts are the need for quality teachers, failure to provide adequate and safe infrastructure, lack of learning and teaching support material (LTSM), and lack of necessary facilities and equipment like computer labs, data, wifi.

Not to mention factors like bullying at school, substance abuse, learner pregnancies, child-headed households, financial constraints, and gender-based violence (GBV).  

And then of course the extraordinary circumstances of Covid-19 lockdowns and last year’s KwaZulu-Natal floods.  

Rolling blackouts would also have aggravated the situation even further. On 8 December 2022 the rolling blackout monitoring app, EskomSePush, revealed that South Africans had suffered through an average of 192,720 minutes of rolling blackouts last year. While measures were put in place to minimise the impact on the matric examinations, learners were not exempted from the rolling blackouts during the rest of the year.  

The quality of education that learners receive is possibly the biggest obstacle to their success. Unfortunately, studies have shown that the quality of South Africa’s teaching does not meet local or international education standards. In answer to a written parliamentary question, the minister revealed that in 2021, 1,575 unqualified and underqualified teachers were teaching in schools across the country.  

Furthermore, a study by the Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq) to measure teachers’ knowledge of the subjects they teach proved that local teachers fall woefully short of international standards, with teachers unable to pass tests in the subjects they teach.  

The DA has suggested establishing an independent school monitoring evaluation authority to evaluate and monitor teachers. An independent authority is crucial to the professional development of teachers, as the South African Council for Educators (Sace) seems to have forsaken their mandate to manage the professional development of teachers. The 2021-22 Auditor-General’s report highlighted this by stating, “Sace is still struggling to produce credible performance reports”. 

Given the poor quality of teaching many learners receive, it is hardly a wonder that South Africa fared the worst out of 50 countries assessed in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), which measures learner literacy at a grade 4 level, as well as literacy teaching methods.  

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And our performance in the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timms) was disappointing. Both grade 4 and 8 assessments revealed a failure to meet international standards. Without a strong foundational base in numeracy and literacy, learners become discouraged and either drop out or perform poorly due to lack of interest or skills — because their educators failed to instil the necessary skills to naturally progress in learning.  

There has been much blame assigned to the curriculum, but the presentation of Umalusi’s benchmarking study to Parliament’s Basic Education Portfolio Committee seems not to bear this out. Our curriculum compares quite favourably to the other programmes/qualifications in the study. I must note that although quality of teaching did not form part of this study, it was raised as a concern during the presentation.  

Not that the curriculum does not have room for improvement. The DA’s numerous oversights and engagements with education stakeholders and teachers have highlighted issues with administration, pacing, content and focus.  

Teachers are buried in mountains of unnecessary administration that reduces preparation time for lessons and teaching time. They are unable to provide struggling learners with extra attention and resources, as they simply do not have the time after completing all their administrative duties.

A 2020 study by Amnesty International found that South African teachers spend an average of 12% less classroom time than their international counterparts on actual teaching and learning — 66% compared to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 78%. Teaching time also decreases with class size due to increased time spent on classroom management.  

Struggling learners are also not able to keep up with the curriculum’s demanding pace and heavy content load — factors that also influence the quality of teaching. And with overcrowded classrooms, teachers are simply not able to provide those learners the attention they need to master the content. Learners simply continue to fall further behind.  

While the multiple school-based assessments might aid in identifying struggling learners, they also exacerbate the problem by increasing teachers’ administrative workload and thereby stealing valuable teaching time.  

Foundation phase teachers need to be equipped and supported to provide all learners with the necessary numeracy and literacy skills without which they do not have a hope of reasonable success in the subsequent phases.  

The curriculum needs to be refocused to cultivate entrepreneurship, creativity and independent thinking. Learners need those critical skills to create economic opportunities no matter the economic climate or age in which they find themselves. If we want our learners to thrive, we cannot continue to rely on an outdated curriculum that fails to address historical inequalities and must instead prepare learners to create their own prosperity.   

In light of these serious concerns, we should ask whether learners truly benefit from the 12 years (or more) they spend in South African classrooms and if the NSC is worth it.

The current curriculum fails to instil in learners the knowledge skills necessary for the harsh realities of our economic climate, as much as the matric examination fails to measure learners’ potential to succeed.

Maybe it is time we reconsidered alternative assessment and teaching methods that will allow all learners the chance of success they deserve. DM

Baxolile Nodada MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister for Basic Education and the party’s Constituency Leader in Alfred Nzo District.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    So, to achieve a Bachelor’s Degree Pass, matriculants must obtain at least 40% for their home language, 50% for four other high credit subjects, and 30% for two other subjects. That means, to get into varsity or tech icon, you only need a 43% minimum average for matric.

    To achieve a National Senior Certificate Pass, they must pass 3 subjects with 40%, 2 subjects with 30%, and are allowed to fail 1 subject, but with a minimum of 20%. To get your matric, you only need an average of 33,3%.

    Now, maybe I’m thick, but if you’re only getting a 54% success rate at these levels, that means 46% of students are unable to get across even these low barriers. And you’re saying “The curriculum needs to be refocused to cultivate entrepreneurship, creativity and independent thinking.”? Are you serious?

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      This is not true. We have children who have gone through the current system ant the pass mark is not 40% but 50 plus 1 percent to enter university and you must meet the university requirements of various departments and faculties to be accepted. The hogwash of this fellow does not hold water. What he is basically saying is that out universities have students who do not meet the requirements of university entry. He is insulting our universities and telling us that they require low academic requirements which is nothing but blatant lies.
      The Senates of universities that sets that academic requirements , standards and university academic programmes are insulted by an academic plumber. Adam Habib would allow inferior education at Wits is what this plumber says which is complete hogwash.
      Dr SK Matseke when one went to engage him regarding the fund Barloworld had set up to improve the quality of teachers once said to me that there are people who go around calling themselves educationists who need education themselves and Nodada is one such person. We can help him on the question of education a lot if he can look at the curriculum.

      • Rod H MacLeod says:

        I’m not lying. A “Bachelor’s Degree Pass” is a standard set by the department of education. Of course each university will set its own entrance requirements. In fact, each faculty of each university will set its own entrance requirements, which are often more than 50% plus 1. Please read my comment in context before you issue a knee-jerk response.

  • Y Cato says:

    Mr. Nodada has written an insightful article, but I find it strange that he does not mention the negative influence of the teacher unions, especially SADTU, in holding poor and lazy teachers to account.

  • Steuart Pennington says:

    Thanks for this article, but it rather states the obvious. Presently I work in a number of rural, marginalized schools, firstly, the current curriculum is becoming increasingly inappropriate for the changing world of work and secondly, the aspirations of learners are very disconnected from their academic performance, potential and ability. The crucial issue is employability, what do we need to do to improve every school leavers chances of becoming employable? My sense is that in Grade 8 (Std. 6) children should be streamed into four possible categories: (i) academic with real University potential (25% of kids) (ii) vocational with tertiary diploma potential (25%) (iii) Technical with apprenticeship potential (25%) (iv) Craft with basic hands-on training potential. (This his more or less the practice in many developed economies) If every child over 18 had a drivers license and the potential to develop a skill in one of the four categories above, and we had improving economic growth, many more of our youth would find employment. Govt. and the DoE need to wake up to the fact that employability is the crucial measure, not a ‘matric’, and that will only happen if we change the current moribund approach to education.

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      You are not saying what is inappropriate for the changing world of work in the curriculum. Firstly, I am impressed by the maths and maths literacy curriculum in matric. I am also impressed with the CAT in schools and that matriculants get used to the computer from secondary school. Yes, the issue of apprenticeship that was done away with for vocational training was the biggest blunder but now it has been brought back but not on the scale required. We need standards for assessment of basic knowledge received and attained through certificates in particular matric. Part of the problem we had in the past has been liberals going around attacking the teaching the grammar and the next thing the assessments for progression and you then question yourself whether people want a nation of illiterates or of people we do not know in terms of assessments where to place them to develop academically and in terms of skills. How do you get to know that a student has the capacity to study at a university or technical college without the assessment of matric? If I find you in
      any rural school I will ask parents to drive you away as a very dangerous person to their children and their future.
      You make a driver’s license an issue and make all sort of proposals without any basis. Firstly you need to understand the type of knowledge students have acquired by having proof through assessments and certificates before you can direct them toward a particular career. Your categories are also suspect.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The parsimonious generalisation on the quality of education by Nodada is devoid of any factual basis in terms of the subject content in our schools. He makes these statements without telling us what is wrong with the curriculum and what is it that is lacking and ought to be added. When I first went to do B. Sc to the University of Fort Hare, it was for the first time to encounter calculus in Mathematics at university and statistics. It was with a greet sigh of relief to look at the my children doing matric with differential calculus and basic statistics. This curriculum, compares with international mathematical education. So the fellow needs to understand first what he is talking about. Pali Lehohla, Loyiso Nongxa, Themba Dube and the late Khambule were products of the Bantu Education but became leading light in mathematics and statistics. I can give him my maths textbooks from the 70s in matric to do comparisons before he opens his lavatory mouth. When we entered university, mathematics was not a requirement for accounting. However, the most famous chartered accountants this country has produced never had mathematics in Matric. You can count these products from Professor Nkulu, Gobodo, Nombebe, van Rooyen and many leading black accountants who come from our era and before us. The textbooks were written from the University of Pretoria not the US at that time. I can give him a copy for his perusal. We need facts when we talk about standards not misdirected missives.

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