Job well done: : Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, right, congratulates pupils on January 3 for being among the top matriculants of 2017. Picture:VELI NHLAPO
Job well done: : Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, right, congratulates pupils on January 3 for being among the top matriculants of 2017. Picture:VELI NHLAPO

When Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the 2017 matric results on January 4, most South Africans expected the Eastern Cape to occupy its rightful position — last out of the nine provinces.

Like a recurring episode in a horror movie, education MEC Mandla Makupula and his team gave the usual performance. But in 2018, there was a twist in the tale, an incredible 5.7 percentage point improvement from a 59.3% pass rate in 2016 to 65% in 2017.

Of course, we should celebrate any improvements in the performance of Eastern Cape learners, but the key question for the system and the province is what happens to pupils from poor-performing schools in Bizana, Mt Ayliff, Matatiele, Kwelera, Fort Beaufort and Zwelitsha who are continually failed by the system and left to stare poverty and unemployment in the face.

What happens to those who didn’t get to matric because teachers failed them in Grade 11 by ensuring that only the best pupils get to Grade 12?

What happens to those who are unable to perform at the lowest global benchmark of maths and science knowledge by Grade 5 as shown by the Trends in Mathematics and Science Studies 2015 study?

And what happens to those who can barely read in their own languages by the time they reach Grade 4, as shown by the 2016 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Studies (Pirls)?

The Eastern Cape recorded a massive 22% decline in the number of pupils who wrote matric in 2017 — from 82,902 in 2016 to 67,648 in 2017. Could this be related to the practice of "culling" weaker pupils from enrolling in matric in order to increase school pass rates?

Only 42.3% of pupils in the province performed at 30% and above in mathematics. This means the majority of pupils (57.7%) in the province are unable to meet the minimum benchmark in mathematics.

All these issues point to serious systemic challenges within the Eastern Cape department of education and the system as a whole and need the collective effort of all stakeholders. These challenges require the national and provincial departments to rethink their strategies, plans and messaging to the public.

One of the first things to rethink is the "system improvement" narrative implicit in the annual increases in matric results. Why should the public concern itself with incremental increases in matric when the system is bleeding at lower levels?

As important as matric results are for measuring the performance of the system at exit level, the pitting of schools and pupils from vastly different backgrounds against one another only serves to belittle and shame those who are failed by the system. The dysfunctionality narrative and "interventions" for nonconformers only serve to demoralise those who give their best despite the prevailing circumstances.

It could be that one of the reasons the "culling" practice happens is because schools want to conform or increase pass rates to the detriment of pupils. Before schools are called dysfunctional, or have provincial officials descend
on them for "quick win" interventions, a holistic view of professional development is required as well as deeper reflection on challenges at the lower levels.

The same — if not more — level of effort that is put into the matric performance should be put into the lower phases.

Provincial and district officials need to take more accountability for the poor performance of pupils in the province. The big question is what kind of discussions take place in Zwelitsha whenever systemic assessments point to a crisis?

Sending poor-performing teachers or school principals to a university or running Saturday classes doesn’t solve the problem. Schools require strong leadership, teachers need in-class support and pupils need instructional mastery from teachers. It is only when politics are removed and performance standards are set for officials, principals and teachers that accountability will prevail in the system.

As the 2018 World Bank development report notes: "Politics can intensify misalignments in education systems, when the vested interests of stakeholders divert systems away from learning.

"This can happen at various stages, from setting policy goals to designing, implementing, evaluating and sustaining reforms. Even when many actors are committed to learning, a system can remain stuck in a low-learning trap".

As many local and global studies have shown, there needs to be greater focus on the coverage of the curriculum and protection of teaching and learning time.

At the January 2016 education imbizo, Motshekga noted that teachers in township and rural schools only taught half the number of hours than at Model C schools.

This view is backed by research and programme implementation data that show curriculum coverage was as low as 30% in some schools and districts in the Eastern Cape. The Pirls results serve as evidence that curriculum coverage with a focus on reading and writing are key to transforming the system.

New thinking is required on how the system recruits, trains and incentivises new teachers; retains, supports and utilises existing teachers; how parental involvement can be increased; what accountability mechanisms need to be in place from school to provincial level; and how teaching and learning time will be protected.

Failure to do this will result in more illiterate children who will ultimately add to the millions already subjected to poverty and unemployment. This is not ideal for SA and its development aspirations.

To borrow from educationalists Charles Dukes and Kavin Ming, the question then for all education officials, academics and practitioners alike is: who among us shall be literate? Only time will tell.

Tyatya is a client relationship manager at Tshikululu Social Investments, which manages R300m in education investments annually. He writes in his personal capacity.