Different spin: Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and experts are at odds over the significance of the 2016 matric pass rate. Picture: THULANI MBELE
Different spin: Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and experts are at odds over the significance of the 2016 matric pass rate. Picture: THULANI MBELE

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga painted a rosy picture of a nation’s education system on the mend yesterday. She heaped praise on the quality of the system, and said the progression system was bearing fruit, as was her department’s emphasis on maths and science.

Motshekga was upbeat about progress by rural and township schools, suggesting the gap between previously disadvantaged schools and so-called Model C schools is narrowing. Following a drop in the 2015 pass rate, the department said 2016’s results had to be seen in the context of a maturing and stabilising system, in which teachers, district officials and students were now more familiar with the curriculum assessment policy statements introduced three years ago.

The South African Teachers Union on Thursday echoed Motshekga’s sentiment that the public system is still delivering excellent education.

The progression policy was hailed as a mechanism that curbed high dropout rates.

The class of 2016 had 108,742 progressed students, the biggest group yet.

The number increased by more than 65.5% from 2015, and 29,384 of the 67,510 progressed pupils who actually wrote the 2016 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations passed. The number of distinctions among progressed learners more than doubled from 1,081 in 2015 to 2,361.

Basic Education spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said their research showed that previously schools were not completing the syllabus, causing challenges for pupils and teachers.

The department said they had organised pupil support programmes, extra classes at weekends and camps during holidays to improve pupils’ grasp of concepts.

The Free State, a largely rural province, achieved the country’s best result with an overall pass mark of 93.2%, prompting Motshekga to boast about the perceived narrowing of the gap between advantaged schools and previously disadvantaged schools.

But alarmingly, many key players in the education sector said all was not well. Some labelled the results as "superficial", painting a worrying image of a system far from recovery.

Professor of education policy at Wits, Brahm Fleisch, said the matric pass percentage was a misleading indicator of public education quality, particularly as extensive analysis reveals an ongoing crisis in primary schooling.

School infrastructure in rural areas such as the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo remained a challenge for education. Chairwoman of the Education Support Group board at the Open Society Foundations Mary Metcalfe said although Motshekga had correctly focused on equality in class and race, the focus needed to shift to how education is affected by poverty and how it can easily become a contributor to poverty.

Metcalfe said better-performing provinces were privileged and functioned better administratively. She said more than half of South African pupils were in the three poorly performing provinces.

Many schools in those provinces were still without electricity, proper shelter, books, ablution facilities and teachers, she said.

 

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Ongoing Inequality

"Inequality is the single biggest challenge in SA, whether you are talking about poverty, unemployment, family functioning, and access to food … what you see in these results is ongoing inequality," she said.

The effect of poor infrastructure after schools were torched in Vuwani was reflected in the low performance of Limpopo. Deputy president of the National Teachers Union Allen Thompson spoke of the lack of suitably qualified maths and science teachers in rural areas. Thompson said the country was failing to produce a significant number of these educators with teacher colleges having been shut down.

The union said it had asked the department to consider recruiting BCom and BSc students as teachers.

The progression policy, which the minister boasted about, had been identified as a major challenge to the education system’s improvement.

Thompson said the policy lowered the standards of education and needed to
be revised.

Teachers found it extremely difficult to teach pupils who were progressed because many of them did attend school and did not do homework. They had the mentality that they would be pushed to matric eventually through the progression policy, he said.

"Time is often wasted on progressed learners who do not want to come to school or absent themselves during examinations. That time could be dedicated to other pupils," Thompson said.

Extra support by the department was needed for these pupils to bring them on par with others, he said.

The issue of language also continued to hinder progress in most schools, with a call for pupils to be taught in their mother language largely going unnoticed. The pros and cons of such a move are yet to be properly debated.

The Young Communist League of SA welcomed the improvement but said it should not make the country complacent about the many challenges that still face the education system.

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