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Matric results mask major fault lines in the basic education system

We are again at that difficult time of the year! The National Senior Certificate (NSC) results are an important milestone in the lives of all learners who pass well. Some succeed admirably while others are disappointed. They now have to make critical choices about the careers they wish to follow. For many among them, their choices could have been different if the education system was functioning optimally. The many that are deliberately excluded from enrolling for Grade 12 because of their poor Grade 10 and 11 grades face a very bleak future indeed given the depressing economic conditions and the low growth trajectory in which we are trapped.

A major explanation for the performance of the Free State and KZN in 2016 and 2015 for example is certainly because they prevented comparatively more learners than other provinces from sitting the NSC examination in Grade 12. These excluded learners, without Matric, will be swelling the numbers of those that are not in education, employment or training of any kind (NEET).  Implications for social stability as the youth unemployment numbers increase are indeed very scarry.

An education system has different components and dimensions. No single performance metric will be able to provide a comprehensive understanding of how the system works and where the fault-lines are. A critical understanding of the efficiency of any system involves measuring changes that occur to any inputs while in the system and the quality of the outcomes.

The current focus on the final NSC matric results is misleading and opportunutistic, unless we also pay attention to the throughput rate of the system between Grades 10 and 12. When pupils register for Grade 10, they register their intent to sit for the final NSC examinations two years down the line. A true measure of the efficiency of the system must be the proportion of those who succeed in Grade 12 relative to those who registered in Grade 10. Using this metric, it then becomes possible to understand what happened to the pupils who did not sit for the final NSC examination; those who dropped out. This is the information that parents need in order to make informed decisions about the future of their children. It also provides a more meaningful and credible way of assessing the pass rate against the Grade 10 intake.

A critical point to note is that these casualties are common in mainly Quintile one and two schools that are normally under-resourced and cater mainly to the poor learners in poor communities. For them, the state of the schools and the quality of education they receive, reinforces the poverty trap they wish to escape (Spaull, N, “Schooling in South Africa: How low-quality education becomes a poverty trap,” in South African Child Gauge 2015). Policy implications are massive.

Many learners who join Grade 10 from other intermediate schools, especially those located in the rural and poor areas, come with significant language, cognitive and numeracy deficiencies. It is not possible to make up for these deficiencies in the three years leading to the final NSC examinations. The tendency among many schools facing this challenge is for the weak learners to be excluded from Grade 12 through a process known as ‘culling’ in order to meet the demands of their district education managers. This is where the problem lies.

High dropout rates have a direct economic impact in terms of poor use of our human resources. Measuring this defect will ensure that we focus our attention and remedial interventions at the points in the system that really matter.

The DBE is very much aware of the need to reveal more about what happens within the system for the benefit of the parents. The relevant data is available with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) but inexplicably it is excluded from comparative evaluation of the final Matric results. We must desist from using the NSC results to compare the performance of provinces. There are very critical contextual issues that have a direct impact on the capacity and capability of the provincial education departments to deliver quality education. Without factoring these in, in a scientific manner, the comparisons made by the DBE are meaningless, except for political point scoring.

The DBE has also identified a number of vital and successful interventions that are aimed at improving the quality of our education. We see results in the sharp rise in access to education and retention of pupils. School feeding schemes is another very critical area where we should be doing very well were it not for the high levels of corruption that are derailing this effort. An area of great need is to improve the quality of leadership and teaching in poor performing schools on a large scale. This will mean taking on the South African Democratic Teacher’s Union.

There are three critical stakeholder components that must be managed optimally in order to deliver the best education outcomes. The state has a constitutional responsibility and mandate to provide quality school infrastructure and teaching resources. The school governing boards and the state must ensure that qualified teachers are employed to impart knowledge to pupils and manage the schools well. Parents must provide support to pupils and the schools to optimise the learning environment. When all these components are working optimally, the desired outcomes are always achieved.

Research has demonstrated for quite some time now that investing more in terms of quality resources at the foundation levels will ensure better outcomes at higher grades. We knew this at the onset of the transition period, but we did very little to ensure that better qualified teachers were employed at the foundation level and that quality school infrastructure and teaching materials and support were made available.

To a very large degree, our goal and mission of attaining social justice, transformation and the country’s economic development are dependent on how the education system functions. The extent to which children from disadvantaged communities get a real opportunity to achieve educational outcomes that will enable them to be successful in the labour market, is a better indicator and predictor of whether the school system can be expected to transform existing patterns of inequality or merely reproduce them.

The 21st century world of knowledge has become very complex. New fields of research have emerged that were never imagined before. New areas of technology have emerged and created new enterprises that have grown faster than at any time in recorded history. It is therefore clear that as knowledge creation and innovation become the key economic driving forces in this century, education in subjects critical to the development of intellectual capital will become the differentiating factor.

The reality we must accept is that our education system has consistently delivered poor outcomes despite the disproportionately high investment made through the budget allocation. We need visionary leadership at the DBE to bring about meaningful changes without fear of SADTU.