Counting what counts

Assessing South Africa’s education quality depends on more than the matric pass rate

The release of the matric (National Senior Certificate) results this week saw Minister Angie Motshekga and the Department of Basic Education celebrating an all-time high matric pass rate of 81.3%. While we should celebrate and feel justifiably proud of not only an improving pass rate but also the access to education that has been achieved by the South African education system since 1994, we should be alarmed by some key trends that will impact negatively on our country’s future development if not addressed. 

Two key issues we should be looking closely into are:

  1. There is a shockingly poor retention rate of learners in the schooling system. The Department of Basic Education reported that 409 998 learners passed matric of the cohort of the 504 303 who wrote the exams. However, this statistic does not take into account the many learners who have dropped out of the system along the way. There are different ways of looking at this. 972 909 learners were in Grade 2 a decade ago, which means that the matric pass rate is more like 42% if you consider that to be the original cohort of learners who started in the system. Or, if looked at another way, in 2017 a total of 1 052 080 learners were enrolled in Grade 10, which means that the matric pass rate is actually more like 39%. Experts point out that the retention rate is affected by many factors, which is true. However, in spite of these complexities and whichever way you view the numbers, the reality is that a worrying number of young people leave the school system before matric. These high dropout rates are an indicator of an ailing education system. 
  2. The enrollment and pass rates in both Maths and Science have declined.The declining numbers of learners who take the key subjects of mathematics and physical sciences at Grade 10 as well as the stagnation of learner performance in these subjects is a grave concern, especially given the importance of these subjects to our country’s economy. Drilling into the numbers is depressing. 45% of students failed maths in 2019, making it one of the worst matric results of the year. The maths pass rate also declined year on year. There were fewer learners taking physical sciences compared to last year, the number of students who sat the exam was the lowest recorded in five years and the number of matric passes also declined.

These statistics are indicators of declining education quality that will have dire consequences if not reversed. It’s time for the Department of Basic Education to report on the numbers that count. It must commit to reporting on quality indicators, not just the pass rate. Going forward, retention, throughput, and participation in key subjects need to be used as the indicators of the education system’s health. And there is no reason for these numbers not to be reported on – the data is available. 

Beyond the numbers, its also necessary to acknowledge and look at what is causing the low retention rate and poor performance of the education system. In the wake of the release of the matric results each year, it’s necessary to interrogate the underlying quality of the education system, and to identify the steps need to be taken to improve it. While the eduction system is complex, and a range of factors influence its performance, a key issue is that some learners, especially those from poor backgrounds, don’t get proper foundational support in the system, and the consequences of this are felt throughout their schooling and develop into crippling knowledge gaps and learning backlogs. Educational researchstudies provide compelling evidence of the following:

  1. Learners from low socio-economic backgrounds in South Africa lack the requisite foundations to access education effectively.According to research, only the top 16% of South African Grade 3 children perform at an appropriate grade level and, in Grade 3, the learning gap between the poorest 60% of students and the wealthiest 20% of students is approximately three grade levels. This effectively means that there is a two-tier education system in South Africa, one that is divided on socioeconomic lines. 
  2. Learners get promoted from one grade to another without mastering content. A structural issue in the education system exacerbates the problem. Because of a policy directive, and because of the pressure to move young people through the system, learners are routinely promoted from one grade to the next without having mastered the content and foundational competencies of preceding grades, resulting in the development of significant cognitive backlogs that inhibit the acquisition of more complex competencies. 
  3. Learners’ conceptual and procedural knowledgegaps develop cumulatively, and severe backlogs and difficulties in grasping the curriculum are evident by the time learners reach Grade 10. 
  4. Many South African teachers also have knowledge gaps, owing amongst other thingsto inadequate training, and these gaps compound the problem of learners’ foundational knowledge gaps. 

Until these issues are addressed, the ills of the education system will not be cured. We can’t pretend that the education system is healthy and robust just because of a high pass rate. It’s time to face the systemic issues head on. 

By Barbara Dale-Jones

Andres Chio/The Cougar

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