As expected the 2013 matric results have unleashed deserved pride and joy about the performance of the class of 2002. Various analysts have also provided very informative analysis in order to have a deeper appreciation of how well the system has been working over the past 12 years. The 2013 results are simply an outcome of an effort that started in 2002 when 1 261 827 learners were enrolled in the public schools system for grade 1 (DOE, Education Statistics in SA at a Glance, 2002, p8). We can only have a deeper and meaningful appreciation of the challenges that impact on the system if we have a more comprehensive view and understanding of some of the key drivers that affect its performance.

Research by Nic Spaull of the University of Stellenbosch says “identifying policy priorities to improve outcomes for poor primary school learners” provides a good perspective on some of the challenges facing a critical segment of the system that feeds into the secondary and senior secondary levels.

I reproduce in full the policy implications identified in this research:

Preschool education: Providing at least one year of quality pre-school education to all students is likely to improve student performance. This is especially true for poorer students who would otherwise start primary school at a disadvantage. Improving the quality of preschool education offered to the poor is also necessary if the full benefit of this policy intervention is to be felt. These recommendations are in line with those made in previous policy briefs.

Access to reading textbooks: Learners from low-income households are less likely to have direct access to textbooks. Since there is a strong positive correlation between reading-textbook access and reading performance, targeting policies and funds towards reading-textbook provision will have an impact on student performance. This is especially true for learners from a disadvantaged socio-economic background.

Homework frequency: The research shows performance gains associated with those students who received homework either once or twice a week or most days of the week. Practical policies that encourage teachers to prescribe homework and enable students to complete that homework should be explored. These policies are likely to be inexpensive, but yield significant gains in student performance.

Teacher knowledge and quality: Teachers? subject expertise has a small positive impact on learner performance. While improving teacher subject-knowledge is likely to provide modest gains, at the grade 6 level policy should focus rather on helping teachers convey the subject material to their students.

We should be proud of the progress we have made in all of the above areas. Challenges still remain though especially in poor schools.

– Improvement of school infrastructure consistent with minimum acceptable standards in poor areas has been slow and contested. Progress seems to follow threats of legal action by various NGOs in the education sector.
– Quality of teachers has been demonstrated to be very poor and Sadtu has resisted all efforts aimed at performance management in the areas where they have influence.
– The roll-out of early childhood development centres has not matched demand especially in poor areas.
– Provision of textbooks and other support materials has been the subject of public contestation with the department of basic education in the past few years.
– Management of schools in order to attain normal functionality has been disrupted very frequently by Sadtu. In a number of instances the appointment of principals has been influenced by patronage rather than skills and qualifications. (Cash for post of principal.)
– Teaching environment in terms of high teacher /student ratio has been a challenge.

An equally relevant research has recently been done by Martin Gustafsson: “New evidence in the case for improving the quality of secondary school learning outcomes” (Stellenbosch Policy Brief No. 01/2011). The policy implications flowing from it are reproduced below:

– Continued focus on educational outcomes: To a large extent, the findings add weight to the existing prominence given to improving the quality of educational outcomes. Grade-on-grade academic improvements at secondary level are below those found in similar countries, which confirms the need to improve the quality of learning and teaching across all secondary grades.
– Improved access to learning resource: One way to achieve better outcomes would be to improve access to learning materials, since households cite lack of books as their main challenge. This supports the existing policy shift aimed at addressing this problem.
– Focus on core skills: Proficiency in reading and writing English, along with computer literacy are shown to be vital determinants of employment and earnings prospects. Policies should ensure that learners are sufficiently equipped in this regard.
– Increase learning time: Only about half of learner absenteeism is attributable to poor health, with a further 10% caused by a lack of money. This indicates that there is considerable scope for increasing learning time in schools through, for instance, advocacy campaigns aimed at parents that emphasise the importance and benefits of secondary school education.
– Enrolment vs performance: The analysis shows that secondary level enrolment in South Africa is already high by international standards, with marked improvements between 2003 and 2009. But when it comes to the number of learners passing matric, the country does not perform well. Many learners reach the grade 12 insufficiently prepared for their final exam. A key and immediate objective should be to increase the completion rate for those learners who do in fact reach grade 12. This does not imply that increasing grade 12 enrolment should be ignored. It should remain as a (secondary) long-term goal. But in the medium term, the focus should be on improving the quality of educational outcomes, both in terms of the completion rate, and in terms of the quality of skills and knowledge learners gain in the process. The net effect would be to equip learners and improve their chances of entering tertiary education. This is desirable at individual level, since further education improves employment prospects and earnings potential. But it will also be beneficial at national level, because an increase in secondary and tertiary graduates has been shown to improve a country’s economic growth potential in the long run.

If we shift our attention and focus more to improving the quality of education outcomes, reporting on the performance of the 2002 class requires more than the information we are given at the very public and chest-beating announcements that we are accustomed to. The following statement by Equal Education identifies the problem with respect to the 2013 results:

In total, there were 1 407 schools with a pass rate below 60%, the standard used by the DBE to identify ‘underperforming schools’. 1 209 these schools, or 86%, are in Quintile 1, 2 and 3. These are the poorest and most under-resourced schools in the country. In comparison, only 36 schools in Quintile 5 had a pass rate below 60%. 631 Quintile 1 schools had a pass rate of between 80% and 100%, compared to 620 Quintile 5 schools. However, the number of schools in Quintile 1 (1 659) is much larger than the number of schools in Quintile 5 (740). In reality, 38% of Quintile 1 schools compared to 83,79% of Quintile 5 schools had a pass rate of between 80% and 100%.

The issue of the drop-rate between grade 10 and 12 deserves more discussion and public engagement. See this article by James Myburgh for the figures. And, dealing with the issue will require a systemic and contextual evaluation by education researches so that targeted interventions can be made. Currently a number of very useful and different interventions with varying successful outcomes are being tried by the provincial education departments. Clearly a much more coordinated strategy is required to yield the outcomes we all desire.

While it is important to celebrate the achievements of the class of 2002, it is equally very crucial that key contextual data is presented and properly interpreted. It is understandable that we give publicity to the announcement of the final matric results. But it is even more important to account fully for the unacceptable high rate of drop-outs between grade 10 and 12. If opportunities for these learners are not drastically improved in the short term, the system will be making an unwanted contribution to possible future social instability. The public needs to understand the depth and complexity of the challenges to be able to work with education authorities for even better outcomes.


Thabang Motsohi

Thabang Motsohi

Thabang is a very experienced and leading strategy consultant with more than 20 years of executive management experience. His forte and focus as an organizational strategist concerns helping organisations...

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