Defend Truth


We cannot recklessly discard and replace the matric exam system overnight


Elijah Mhlanga is Chief Director for Communication at the Department of Basic Education.

Unfortunately, examinations are necessary and cannot be avoided completely and the Department of Basic Education is fully cognisant of the negatives associated with examinations and is working towards minimising these negatives.

The Department of Basic Education is open to constructive criticism that will take us forward. Education is a contested terrain that requires extensive research and consultation with all stakeholders before any change is effected. Policy changes in education at all times go through a process of wide consultation, and decisions are based on research that takes into account local and international trends.

The opinion article by Michael Workman, a retired educator, in Daily Maverick of 16 July 2023 is, however, lacking in objectivity and makes some sweeping statements which are not fully substantiated (“Our archaic matric exam system dates back to 1858 and can inflict a lifetime of mental scars”).

To refer to the matric examination as “cruel and inadequate” and to say that “there is not one good point about the matric examination” or that the examination “has no validity and credibility and should be withdrawn”, is to sensationalise and exaggerate the negatives relating to the matric examination.

All examinations, the world over, have their downsides and all good systems will do their best to reduce the anxiety and stress related to examinations.

Unfortunately, examinations are necessary and cannot be avoided completely and the Department of Basic Education is fully cognisant of the negatives associated with examinations and is working towards minimising these negatives.

Public examinations in South Africa have a rich history of over 160 years and through this period there have been significant improvements and changes in the composition, structure and administration of public examinations.

Qualifications, curricula and assessments

We must distinguish between the qualification, which is the National Senior Certificate; the curriculum, which is the National Curriculum Statement (commonly referred to as the CAPS); and the assessment, which comprises the national examination and school-based assessment.

In terms of the qualification, the National Curriculum Statement was recently evaluated by Ecctis, which is an international gold standard provider for recognition of global qualifications, and they evaluated the National Senior Certificate to be internationally comparable.

The curriculum is continuously being reviewed, to ensure that it is keeping up with international developments and also nationally relevant. Subjects like Information Technology, Mechanical Technology, Electrical Technology, Civil Technology, Marine Sciences, Coding and Robotics have been introduced over the years to ensure that we keep abreast of the economic needs of the country.

The curriculum is currently being reviewed to ensure that we infuse skills and competencies that are 21st-century-based. This, therefore, negates the statement made by Mr Workman, of an archaic system.

With reference to the third component, which is the assessment of the curriculum, Mr Workman has failed to mention that the assessment throughout schooling consists of an examination and school-based assessment, which incorporates the formative assessment to which he has referred.

In the Foundation Phase (grades R to 3), 100% of the assessment is school-based and it is in the main formative, where teachers are continuously providing feedback to learners and their parents on progress made with the demonstration of the key skills by learners at this stage.

In the Intermediate Phase (Grades 4 -7), 80% of the assessment is school-based and the emphasis is on formative assessment and only 20% is examination focused.

In the Senior Phase, 60% of the assessment is school-based and only 40% is examination focussed. In Grades 10 and 11, 40% of the assessment is school-based and 60% is based on examinations. In grade 12.75% of the assessment is examination focused and 25% is school-based.

There is a gradual move to ensure that the assessment is school-based and has a stronger formative emphasis. We fully agree that the assessment must be directed towards learning and providing feedback to the learner, rather than just being driven by scores.

However, the conundrum lies in the low reliability of school-based assessment which must be balanced with the examinations that have a high reliability. As the competencies of our teachers improve, the department will move to a greater weighting of school-based assessment, even at the Grade 12 level.

It needs to be noted that even in the more advanced countries like Singapore, Japan, the United Kingdom, the European countries and in most other countries, examinations dominate, particularly at the exit level, which is equivalent to our matric. We cannot migrate completely from examinations at key points in the system, but we will continue to strengthen formative assessment practices at all grades.

The Council of Education Ministers (CEM) has recently adopted “Assessment for Learning” as the underpinning learning pedagogy that must direct teaching and learning in every class. We are strongly advocating a formative assessment culture in every classroom in the country.

Mr Workman and others must stay close to the Department of Basic Education and observe the important changes that are in the pipeline which are part of the curriculum strengthening and assessment improvement process.

The matric certificate has earned a particular status and level of recognition in the South Africa system which cannot be recklessly discarded and replaced overnight. Education is fundamental to our future as a nation and therefore any change must be intensely considered and gradually phased in. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ansie du Toit says:

    If matric exam will scar you for life, how ready are you then for the big bad world out there? Some sort of examination will have to be done.

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    The SA curriculum and measurement by tests is effective in only one aspect of capapbilkity and competency. It enables and exposes that element of IQ framed as crystallised intelligence i.e., the ability to remember lots of things. It completely ignores fluid intelligence i.e., the ability to rapidly assimilate and synthesize knowledge and then use knowledge to solve problems.
    It is this element that differentiates teaching from learning and arguably is the gaping void in South Africa’s development capability. It is also the systemic risk to thousands of jobs that that will be the result of proliferation of artificial intelligence.

  • T Hutch says:

    Mr Mhlanga is correct regarding the combination of formative and summative assessments; however, he omits one very important factor: the quality of the assessments. In English for example, for formative assessment (assessment for learning) to be effective, the learner would be required to write a first draft, as part of a process of learning, which would be marked by the educator, returned with relevant feedback and clear objectives for the learner’s improvement. The second (improved) draft would subsequently be re-assessed and form part of the learner’s school-based assessment. However, this requires competent teachers, is time consuming and, generally, does not happen in the classroom.

    Mr Mhlanga writes that the NSC is evaluated by Ecctis, but are the assessed scripts also evaluated? Sadly, over the past few years, assessment standards have been lowered, internally, and particularly, externally. For example, in the English (Paper 1 and 2) NSC, vague and unfocussed reponses that show no understanding are awarded marks. This has a detrimental affect on more than just fallacious statistics; it feeds a system in which educators are encouraged to teach and accept mediocrity. Our children are worth so much more and are capable of achievening so much more.

    We are failing them in so many ways.

    • Terence Dowdall says:

      Without evaluation of school standards by a competent and independent inspectorate, school assessments are virtually worthless. The same mind-set that protects incompetent civil servants will protect incompetent teachers, at the expense of learning. The same mind-set that covers up incompetence at all levels in and outside of government, will cover up rotten teaching just as it covers up theft of public money in service departments. The school-based assessments will be done in a way that is intended to hide the shambles in the great bulk of the education system and create the illusion of competence in teachers and learners. It won’t be until the unfortunate learners hit tertiary education that their useless education is revealed – as has been the case at good universities for decades.

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