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Opinionista

The numbers don’t lie — the inherent mathematical flaws in SA’s education system

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Mmusi Maimane is leader of Build One SA.

Only a meagre 30% of matric passers will likely attain a mark of 50% or more in key subjects like maths, physical science, accounting, life sciences, economics and business studies. This poses a grave threat to our economy.

This week marks two important moments in the education calendar of South Africa. By the end of this week, all public schools will have opened and officially commenced the academic year, as well as the release of the class of 2023’s matric results.

The story repeats itself every year, with little ever changing as we enter Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s 5,350th day at the helm.

There is little debate about whether South Africa has an education crisis. The system is begging for a modern, future-focused overhaul. Years ago, I was employed as a teacher in a fairly ordinary Gauteng high school. With firsthand insight into how schools operate — and how rigid the system is – I share the frustration of parents and learners alike.

However, it goes beyond the classroom. The long hand of our dismal education system reaches into the workplace, the home, and the economy. This is why it is mission-critical that we change it from top to bottom.

On Monday, Umalusi — the entity tasked with establishing and overseeing standards for general and further education — acknowledged instances of learner cheating, exam printing errors, and translation inconsistencies. However, conspicuously absent was any mention of the fundamental issue: the persistently subpar standards of basic education under Angie Motshekga’s 15-year tenure as Minister of Basic Education.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Umalusi matric irregularities findings — group copying, errors in exam papers heighten concerns

In a mirror image of Umalusi’s selective statements, Minister Motshekga is unlikely to disclose that only a meagre 30% of matric passers will attain a mark of 50% or more in key subjects like maths, physical science, accounting, life sciences, economics and business studies. This poses a grave threat to our economy.

Even more critically, it poses a threat to young South Africans. It remains our duty to champion their cause and rectify the underlying, systemic issues continually glossed over by Minister Motshekga and her cadre of spin doctors. Let’s delve into the actual numbers, as numbers cannot be spun or deceived.

Matric results hinge on “base pass marks”, officially known as the National School Higher Certificate Standard — the lowest common denominator. The official matric pass rate is based on this low standard, requiring learners to achieve 3×30% in three subjects and 3×40% in three subjects. The average mark needed to be deemed to have “passed matric” is effectively 35% on aggregate, a problematic standard practically, statistically, and psychologically.

Allowing learners to pass subjects at 30% is detrimental for three reasons. Firstly, it is fundamentally an inappropriate and unjust pass-mark measure. Secondly, it masks the underperformance of the Department of Basic Education (DBE). Thirdly, it negatively impacts learners in the education system.

The DBE’s own Diagnostics Report reveals that the majority of students who take crucial matric subjects pass with less than 50%. Over the past six years (2015 – 2020), a disconcertingly low percentage of students who passed matric achieved 50% or higher in vital subjects: Mathematics (21.3%); Physical Science (27.1%); Accounting (28.8%); Life Sciences (29.6%); Economics (20.7%); and Business Studies (28.4%).

Bad news for economy

The consequence is a shortage of engineers, scientists, and science subject teachers, hindering our ability to meet market needs. Developmental psychology affirms that low expectations dampen collective achievement excellence. Current standards convey to learners that 30% and 40% are acceptable achievements. We must set and surpass high expectations, conveying our belief in learners and expecting excellence from each of them.

The question lingers: who benefits from using low thresholds to gauge pass marks and rates? Certainly not our youth or economy. Only the department and the minister gain. Minister Angie Motshekga’s 15-year tenure has left a dismal legacy, with global rankings placing SA 107 out of 141 in skills for the future workforce.

International benchmarks like Timms and Pirls indicate that only 20% of our learners are performing at the appropriate level. Holding her accountable is challenging when statistics are manipulated for a favourable portrayal.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Including dropouts in the matric pass rate detracts from the real issues affecting youngsters

Imagine an honest matric results announcement where the minister admits that fewer than 25% of students obtained a mark of 50% and above. This would prompt an earnest conversation about the department’s performance.

Solutions exist. Politically, change the minister and the government. Policy-wise, incentivise students to study subjects vital to the economy, offering performance incentives for a C grade or better in critical subjects like physical science, information technology, engineering, economics, accounting and maths.

To empower parents with choice, implement a school voucher programme resembling US charter schools. Enhance personnel by rewarding well-performing teachers financially and upskilling poorly performing ones. Attract top talent to the public schooling system from other sectors.

Revitalising schools requires capital injection. The private sector should collaborate with the government on a collaboration schools’ model, converting struggling schools with private financial aid.

This year let’s shift the conversation about our education system. While celebrating individual accomplishments, let’s not be swayed by the DBE. Instead, call for a new leadership team in our education department and discuss ideas to steer this vital department back on course.

With an annual cost exceeding R280-billion, overseeing over 24,000 schools and 13 million learners, we cannot afford anything less than a thorough examination of our education system. Our children deserve better, and our nation cannot endure 27 more years of this miseducation. DM

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  • Ben Harper says:

    It’s what the anc want, keep the voting public dumb so they don’t know any better than what the anc feeds them

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    The last thing we need is another radical overhaul of the education system. Improvement is unlikely while education is directed by collectivist central control. Here are 7 things they might but probably won’t do.
    1) Ditch the BELA Act. Not all of education is in a crisis. Many schools and home-schools are doing well. Let them get on with the job.
    2) Support new (teenage) mothers with educational material (little blocks and shapes, picture books etc. at appropriate developmental levels) via clinic visits. Happens on a small scale here and there, apparently.
    3) Re-open the professional teachers’ colleges. Teacher training, particularly for primary school, is not the job of universities.
    4) Identify and teach teachers how to read – not how to teach, but lessons for teachers who cannot read at an appropriate level. Ditto with sums.
    5) Find schools that are doing well despite challenges (like the country school with a 100% pass rate) and replicate through on-going school management training and evaluation.
    6) Employ a teaching assistant for every x number of pupils in a class above a certain number.
    7) Get rid of the idiotic Matric Pass and just give every student who sits for the exams a school leaving certificate with their results. Really, as an employer, is it going to make much difference whether I employ someone who failed with 29% or passed with 31%? Universities etc. set their own “pass rates” in any case.

    • The real Ellon Must says:

      Well put Peter Compulsory ongoing training for teachers with salaries linked to their pass rate. Maths, science and their own specialty compulsory subjects. We have teachers that are unable to pass mathematics exams teaching that same mathematics to “learners”. We have a become a nation that “targets” the lowest common denominator and constantly fail to achieve it!

  • Rochelle Fellinger-Ndlovu says:

    We currently have the opportunity to comment on the Basic Education Law Amendment (BELA) Bill; during the NCOP public participation which is now open until 31Jan. Reject the BELA Bill, on the DearSouthAfrica platform, and comment that a thorough investigation on the whole education system must be done and clause amended/added/removed accordingly to ensure an education system that provides better outcomes.
    – REJECT the BELA Bill
    – Make Education Better
    The more people who reject the bill on DearSA the better chance there is of getting appropriate policies in place to ensure an improved and Quality Education for ALL children.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    Add to the mix that 26% of 5 year olds in SA are permanently mentally and/or physically stunted. And in rural schools that percentage is approaching 50%.
    You simply cannot expect a mentally stunted child to cope with the subjects that Maimane mentions.
    All of that could change by simply ensuring that all children get a glass of milk a day, a couple eggs a week, wholegrain mealiemeal and a few coloured vegetables like spinach and butternut.
    It’s that simple; everything would change overnight.

  • Glyn Fogell says:

    I fail to see how being allowed to forget over two thirds of what you have learned for three subjects and over half for another three subjects can be regarded as a pass. Add to this the PIRLS 2021 statistics which showed that 81% of SA learners couldn’t read for meaning at the age of 10 (Grade 4) and you can understand how we got to where we are.

    Many parents seem to regard it as being solely the school’s job to teach their children to read, but maybe we are seeing the legacy of the “lost generation” who rebelled against Bantu Education and so are unable to effectively provide home reading support?

    There’s also the issue of poorly resourced schools that are often also combined with unmotivated teachers, although we have seen startling results where the motivation and work ethic of the teaching staff has engendered a similar desire in their learners to rise above the limitations of their environment.

    South African education has as long way to go if we have any hope of producing a home-grown cohort of professionals with the necessary background to excel and add value to the economy.

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