Picture: SOWETAN
Picture: SOWETAN

To place all the attention every year on the overall matric pass rate is like watching a rugby match, and then writing a report only on the activities of the ball-boys.

Yes, it is true to say that the overall pass rate is 72.5% — but this is irrelevant.

Sure, the number sounds reasonable enough, because it is a little better than in previous years and isn’t getting worse. This is why basic education minister Angie Motshekga feels able to say the system is "moving in the right direction".

Well, the truth is, it’s a scandal, and will remain so until the pass rate is 99%. Those who argue we must just keep slogging away with the present system don’t understand the problem.

If the system were functioning properly, everyone who was promoted to the final two years of school — that is, grades 11 and 12 — should be, and would be, capable of passing.

The matric certificate has two core functions.

First, it should provide evidence of a certain level of general knowledge, of a capacity for reasoning, and of a degree of literacy and numeracy that enable a person to make his or her way in the world of work. It should indicate a capacity for further learning and training, even if that’s not necessarily at university level.

Second, the certificate can be an entrance ticket to university, and both the pupil’s average mark and the marks in each subject should be reliable predictors of success at that level.

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

For instance, universities know that high achievement in school mathematics is essential if a student is to cope in fields like medicine, the sciences, engineering and architecture. In
theory, a pass in matric maths is enough, but in practice the bar is being moved ever higher, so that now a distinction (more than 80%) is the effective minimum in many faculties. Proficiency in English is another important predictor of success as, without it, many other subjects will be inaccessible.

This is why the most disturbing aspect of this year’s results was the national average mark in each subject: 30.8% in maths, 35% in physical science. This means that whatever Motshekga says, the reality is there are thousands of children who are getting 10% or 20%, and who must have been out of their depth for years — and yet have been routinely promoted.

Remember that it’s not even compulsory to take these subjects. So, if so many children are failing a subject which they were supposedly equipped to cope with, serious questions must be asked about what is happening lower down in the system. Even "Maths Literacy", which is the easier alternative to the mainstream maths required at tertiary level (essentially consisting of what used to be called arithmetic) produced a national average of just 37%.

So what are we left with: a situation where more than a quarter of the pupils who wrote matric in 2016 did not meet the basic requirements and are deemed to have "failed".

The point is, they should not have been sitting the exams in the last two years of school at all.

Rather than being forced to "fail" at matric, these pupils should be better equipped lower down the ranks, so that when they get there, they’re not branded as failures, when they’ve been failed by the teachers.

Alternatively, these pupils can exit the system earlier with a less advanced qualification, but one that still equips them for further training that enables them to make their way elsewhere.

Motshekga made much of the 88% pass rate in the Free State, the highest of the nine provinces. This, it turns out, was not because the Free State’s pupils are suddenly cleverer and have better teachers, but because, of the province’s 55,000 pupils in grade 10 in 2014, less than half survived in the system to write matric two years later. Motshekga’s celebration was roundly mocked on social media.

But the truth is that on this score at least, Motshekga was right: this is exactly what should be happening. Children who are not capable of passing matric should not be writing it in the first place.

Having said that, the problem with the Free State scenario is that the right thing is happening for the wrong reason. The missing Free State pupils most likely just dropped out, rather than exiting the system formally with some kind of qualification they can use. They are deemed "failures" — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Two generations ago, before "mark inflation" and the rise of false aspiration in the 1960s and 1970s, the white education system in SA had an exit ticket known as the Junior Certificate, or "JC". This was awarded after the examination at the end of the old standard eight (now grade 10). Many boys left school with this legitimate qualification and became apprentices in a range of artisan trades — electrician, plumber, bricklayer — and girls generally worked in commerce and offices. There was no stigma to such certificates or such work. Exclude the racist exclusivity, and there is a simple lesson there for the modern system.

As much as many argue this point, the fact is that there is no problem with the matric examination in itself – it has been benchmarked against global standards. It is merely the scoreboard at the end of the game. In that sense, we should be thankful that it is telling us the truth.

But it is the unfolding crisis taking place during the game itself — the 10 years of schooling leading up to grades 11 and 12 with an abysmal standard of most public teaching — that is the real unaddressed tragedy.

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