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The matric exam is a mockery and should be scrapped – it has no place in modern education


Michael Workman is a retired educator. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

To expect pupils to write just one exam that will determine their future is quite absurd, especially if it is simply written because it is ‘the norm’.

The matric examination tells us very little about the purpose and nature of what the exam is about. Notwithstanding, it does tell us how far South Africa lags behind other countries in the world when it comes to education.

An exam should rather tell a story about a student’s voyage through school, than give just a mark or symbol. Furthermore, it should yield valuable information about factors that require review and need to be changed within the school curriculum.  

To expect pupils to write just one exam that will determine their future is quite absurd, especially if it is simply written because it is “the norm”. The exam is nothing more than a mockery.

For many pupils who have an average to good memory it is an easy task, but for those who haven’t it becomes a nightmare and must rate as one of the worst events in their schooling career.  

The old adage, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” simply has no place in today’s world. If this is the case, then how do we know that it could not be done better?

Another example of this type of thinking is – “if I did the same curriculum at school in my day and it worked, then why change things?”

Whether we like it or not, the curriculum has become stagnant and the world is moving forward. Schools that do not change and move with the times will become redundant, eventually giving way to some other form of learning be it online, home teaching or blended learning.

Stress a major factor in teen suicide

There is no doubt that the matric exam places huge pressure on Grade 12 students and their parents. In South Africa, 9% of all teenage deaths are due to suicide and the numbers are increasing. Children, especially at exam time, suffer from anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Every day it is estimated that 21 South Africans commit suicide and, according to experts, stress could be a major contributor.  

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) already an old concept in most countries, the matric exam presents as a massive stumbling block, preventing any kind of innovation within South African schools.

Inasmuch as many parents and teachers want the status quo to remain, possibly because they see any fundamental change as a “lowering of standards”, this is not the case. Schools are meant to take an active lead in the curriculum, which should be dynamic and continuously changing to meet the needs of an ever-changing world.

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One only has to look at other regions in the world to see how meaningful educational change can bring about positive transformation. Such countries build on their own education plans according to their needs – they do not simply borrow, piecemeal.

Finland, a forward-thinking nation, has developed an education system to suit its own requirements.

Singapore has developed a curriculum that is presently changing because the current system places too much pressure on children and their families.

The Singaporean authorities have recognised this, and have already made appropriate reforms to their curriculum, by reducing pressure on school children. They have also observed that there is a need for more problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, mainly because of the 4IR.  

South Africa is a country that could make meaningful changes to the educational system if the resolve to do so were there. For this to happen would require a huge mind shift from a predominantly autocratic top-down system which is totally controlled by a final exam.

Since when did an exam have so much power and control over education? It could be construed that education has become a political game that is underwritten by politics.

‘Hidden curriculum’ propaganda machine

After all, the “hidden curriculum” has been used effectively all over the world as a propaganda machine. To mention a few nations that have resorted to using politics in education are Nazi Germany, communist China and apartheid South Africa.

The way in which the curriculum is implemented and its failure to address issues of equality and equity almost makes one want to consider conspiracy theories – surely after 30 years we should have a functioning educational system that acknowledges problems of poverty, lack of delivery and corruption? 

Educators need to seriously question whether the matric exam is necessary – there needs to be a purpose, otherwise why write the exam?

The same applies to internal assessments. If there is no valid reason to have these assessments, then why waste time doing them? I have a sense that the assessments and the matric itself are only there for bureaucratic reasons. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dave Watson says:

    Fully agree with most of the sentiments here. The issue is what curriculum system direction we should be taking. It’s of scarce use to identify a problem without offering a workable solution. With his qualifications and experience, the writer is best suited to apply his mind to the solution.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    How about looking at it through the reverse lens; worry less about what is good for the poor, benighted child, and hone the schooling and the exams that follow on societal needs?

    Given that the requirement ratio of artisans to academics in the real World, is probably of the order of 80:20, why not have the first Jesuit years (give me a boy for the first five years and I’ll have the man for life) and the subsequent 15 or so, properly to meeting these societal requirements?

    And in these sports and celebrity-obsessed times, why not have sports and dancing academies too?

  • Larry Dolley says:

    I am no expert, but have always felt the same way as the writer. Admittedly, any change to the mode and method would need incremental change with meticulous monitoring as to its efficacy. This whole process would be a “human experiment” that could not be allowed to fail.
    But, experiment we must!

  • William Dryden says:

    I agree with the writer, however when one only has to get a 50% pass in 4 subjects then 30% in the rest of the subjects the mind boggles. Reducing the % pass mark gives the appearance of helping more students to pass Matric, thus improving the governments totals to look good.

  • Peer Iuel says:

    With the pass rate at 30 percent why even have an exam? The whole system has been dumbed down to such an extent that it is meaningless, another legacy of the ANC!

  • Veronica Diesel says:

    I couldn’t agree more!!! We need to actively address the curriculum as well, it is too content heavy throughout all subjects, which prevents the foundations from being laid properly. We build on concepts which are not understood, and the learners lose confidence. It really disadvantages those people who are not good at exams. I thing there should be more in class projects and discussion type learning, especially in the arts, where the history of art paper puts a lot of talented atrists off.

  • Mark K says:

    All fair points but, if we are to scrap the matric exams, there is a missing function that needs attention. How do we select for post-secondary training and education? We do not have limitless resources for post-secondary and need a system to determine admissions. This is further complicated by socially ingrained opportunity disparities in primary and secondary education, whether we use matric exams as a selection mechanism or not.

  • Oblivious Traveler says:

    As a retired educator I have this to say:
    Without assessment there is no proof of learning.
    Presenting curriculum content to persons that do not have the required proven prior knowledge sets them up for failure.
    Just as the experiment with OBE (Outcome Based Eduation) destroyed the academic future of many (before been canned in Australia and the UK and then implemented in the RSA with disastrous consequences) any experimentation on large scale will infringe on the human right of a decent education of a whole generation.
    The human brain took hundreds of thousands of years to develop and since the Greeks an education system has been developed and implemented to systematically teach a person from childhood to adulthood. It is still the same basic “human brain” with the same basic normal characteristics. Any experimentation that ignores this does so to the detriment of the ones whose futures are been sacrificed. Before subjecting anybody to your “bright” idea, it would be prudent to first get their legal guardian to sign for the “experiment”.

  • georgemills1946 says:

    Change yes, but to what ?, memory is not intelligence, high level maths and science are wasted on the majority etc, however all students should be made aware of all subjects to enable them to study what they enjoy.
    I am a SA citizen but raised in the UK when the 11+ was the standard ( you should already know i am 76), i was told not to sit the 11+ exam because i had no chance of passing.
    I have been very successful business wise and today i am a very wealthy.
    I believe that a more holistic system based on ‘natural intelligence’, not on memory, not on subjects of high level study – but more on questions on life, opinions, situations, likes and dislikes, more abstract things .
    Reviewers would then be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the the person and possibly recommend their next educational stage.

  • Chris 123 says:

    What’s the point anyway, they keep dropping the pass mark, so it says nothing about the pupil’s ability.

  • Deon Du Rand says:

    I believe we all agree the current matric exam has nothing to offer our youth or the economy. The question I want you as educator to answer is where to from here, rather than arguing for it removal.

  • Susan Keegan says:

    I fully agree with the author of this opinion piece but the solutions and concerns raised by those who replied are very worrying. Most are shaped by the same flawed understanding of education that is now the norm. They still want central control and national standards. The solution is to abandon state control of education. Switch responsibility to parents and schools and tertiary institutions. Government support for education should be through providing vouchers for every child, redeemable only at schools so that parents can choose whichever school they deem best. There should be no government curriculum. Good schools will provide the kind of curriculum that produces the results that parents value. Bad schools that provide a useless product will soon close down due to simple market forces. Tertiary institutions will set their own entrance exams, to ensure that students who seek to take their courses are properly equipped for them.

    The idea that we should not seek what is best for the individual child, but what is best for society, is appalling. It is the essence of communist thinking with no respect for children as persons but rather as tools for those in authority to use for their own short-sighted ends.

  • Brendon Bussy says:

    It took me 16 years to get to a point where I could succeed in the formal education system. In the final year of my 4 year Fine Arts degree I was told to find a topic of my own to research and to produce a body of work to present at the end of the year. This was the first time that is been given that level of freedom and it was felt amazing. I spent a year immersing myself in original research and reinventing myself. The end result, I achieved firsts in both areas, the only time I’d succeeded at that level.

    This success was the result of being able to work, for the first time, without the looming expectation of a final sit down written exam, a place over never felt comfortable in, despite loving my subject. At school I would frequently spend Saturdays in the local library researching art and virtually wrote my own textbook. And I would frequently sit up all night painting. And this combination of research and practical application has served me well into my 50s. The result, a mediocre matric.

    Ironically I am now a school Design teacher battling the matric exam in a special needs context. My primary purpose, to insulate my Deaf learners from the creatively deadening experience of a written exam that requires them to write on topics such as Post Modernism, which adds absolutely nothing to their ability to parse their own world and build the skills to survive after school.

    Every day I wonder how forcing energetic kids to sit at a school desk in uniform working through exercises can possibly benefit their future.

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    To begin with, here’s a simple and easy change that will be profoundly positive and can be done by tomorrow morning: Scrap the pass requirements and issue every student who enrolls for the mis-named Matric Examination a certificate indicating the subjects written and the marks achieved. This immediately removes the pernicious, ever-changing decimal point distinction that forever brands some young people as Failures and declares the happy others to be Passes. If you’ve stuck it out at school for so long you deserve something to show for it, and so do your parents who have slaved away (some literally) to keep you there.
    Let employers (if any can be found) decide what value they place on the results achieved. Universities do this in any case.
    As for tinkering with the syllabus – don’t. Through the medium of the syllabus kids learn valuable lessons that cannot be taught per se – there is no Punctuality class. Syllabus changes inevitably lead to later corrective changes, lots of confusion and more work for stressed and exhausted teachers. And the rewriting of text books which somebody has to pay for.
    Very little that one learns of the subjects at school, with the exception of accountancy, the sciences and maths, has any lasting value – forgive me if I’ve missed a few. Reading and writing too, of course.
    What the employer is interested in?
    Could you turn up punctually, sober, prepared and neatly dressed for 12 plus years?
    To what extent were you able to apply your mind to matters that were possibly only tangential to your real interests?
    Did you acquire sufficient social skills and responsibility so as not to be disruptive?
    Can you follow rules and instructions?
    Did you participate in voluntary activities?
    Did you learn the value and skill of working in a group – see previous point (not did you do “group work” in class.)?
    Abandon exams altogether? No – Impractical and unfair to those who really need and want to get good marks to be admitted to tertiary education, or just to prove that they can.
    Let kids wander around and pursue their own interests? Well, we all know what those are, wink wink. No-one is going to employ them to do that either.
    What else can be done quickly to improve education? All decent teachers teach towards passing the exam. Set, with suitable warning and if in fact possible, exams that require whatever it is that you want kids to learn. If that’s not clear, here’s an example. If the set reader is Othello, and the desired result is that pupils will forever remember the names of the characters, then ask them to regurgitate the names in the exam. If your aim is to teach reading skills, such as reading between the lines, predicting outcomes and so on, using Shakespeare’s play as a medium, then set the exam to test these.
    If you don’t agree with me, shame on you.
    On what authority do I speak? Forty years in education in SA and abroad, state and private schools, sports coach, school principal, senior adviser, Senior Certificate Examiner (the person who sets the exam and heads the team that marks it), and after climbing the ladder, all the way down the snake to finish off with a few years at the bottom, to put it all into perspective. Almost forgot, bringing up (with spousal assistance) eight successful, productive, well-behaved and self-sufficient members of society, some from their beginnings, with others joining along the way.

  • Peter Smith says:

    The countries mentioned have very little in common with SA. A better example is India. Despite more than 30 national languages, the education is English medium. And their curricula and qualifications from their educational institutions are internationally recognised.
    Currently, our education system is a failed experiment by politicians. So, yes, why don’t we then remove the matric exams? Next, we can remove the university exams as it is too traumatic for students to get 30%. In any case, many claimed qualifications are bought, just like our passports. We also don’t have to bother about unemployment – soon the AI and IR4 will be doing all the work. Why then have a school system at all?

  • Jacqueline Geerlings says:

    Succinct & a great foundation article for policy research to begin

  • Debbie Annas says:

    Also a retired educator, one cannot but agree that our education system flounders. Shortcomings in a system not suited to South African society, has been dealt with by lowering pass rates which compounds problems rather than adressing it. What a pity that commercial high schools and trade schools that focus on practical skills were ever abolished – my firm belief is that we should have many more models than the current mainstream schools that deliver matriculants of whom the majority are unable to find opportunities. This is partially addressed in an organic fashion by the many versions of private and online schools that are springing up everywhere, catering for learners needs in a more individualised fashion. Internally, there is an trend towards journal/portfolio based work allowing for continuous assessment during the year, which has been adopted to a degree by our education system as well. The low mark required to pass, as well as problems that AI and plagiarism will brings, need urgently to be adressed. Quality education can only happen if an understanding of how knowledge and self ownership of your work empowers leads to an eagerness to learn. The problem is huge, since centres specialising in training educators has systematically been closed by the ANC government, and currently universities have to rely on bridging courses to ensure minimum standards for entrants to tertiary studies.

  • Annie Conway says:

    Agree totally. Ongoing education is key.

  • Hester Dobat says:

    Yes I agree with the author. But there is always a .. but.
    SA situation is unique in the inequality, which I must add, have been aided and abetted since 1994. Our minister of education Angie, held that post for many years – during which time the standard was dropped to assist the ‘catch-up’ strategy. I agree wholeheartedly the education should be tailored to the needs of the country. The period of training for artisans are surely too short. You learn the basics and not problem solving or complexity of old structures that have to be upgraded? So you botch up till you have learned ‘on the job’? I am only asking based on my personal experience of calling out a qualified tradesman. That is but one of the ‘short cuts’ being taken in our disadvantaged schools. Most of the schools, like everything else, are in disrepair and unusuable. But we all know that! But the vacuum created and expanded of lack of literacy due to negligence and unbelievable lack of knowledge and understanding of what is ‘education’, is a hotbed for political propaganda. Solutions? Instead of focussing all attention on schools who are producing educated pupils, with a diliberate push of that agenda. Use those as models. Learn from successes. Not a racial agenda. And not a political agenda. On country need based principles. Introduce streaming much sooner. Include math in all spheres from academic to artisans. Teach critical thinking, do totally away with rote learning. That is a starting place.

  • George Du Toit says:

    Anyone expects the current ANC Department of Education to make ANY sensible and efficient changes ta an already ruined and defunct ststem?

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