By Staff Reporters

South Africa’s education system, typified by rundown infrastructure, congested classrooms and rather poor educational outcomes, is prolonging inequality and as a result failing too many children, with the poor being the hardest hit.

These challenges are always amplified every January when South Africans pore over matric results which are an illustration of how South Africa’s learners performed in their final examinations after twelve years of schooling.

As is always the case, the results occasion heated debates… and more often than not, rage.

The management system of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) has come under severe criticism from academics and teacher organisations.

The most notable of critics is Jonathan Jansen, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Stellenbosch and president of the South African Academy of Science (SAAS).

Jansen says the system sacrifices learners throughout their entire schooling years to achieve gratifying results. 

“About half the cohort starting in grade 2 do not reach grade 12; there is great culling of learners around grades 10 to ensure that only ones who are likely to pass are let through to grade 12. That pushes more and more students to math literacy (instead of pure mathematics) to increase a school’s percentage pass rate and therefore reputation etc. Please read my work, South Africa’s “real” matric pass rate is 39%,” the intellectual told The Telegram in response to questions sent to him.

The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) echoed similar sentiment labelling the matric results as dishonest.

Naptosa cautions the department against the matric hype and provincial league tables  “because it is encouraging undesirable, desperate and dishonest acts.” 

Another critic is Mary Metcalfe of the University of Johannesburg who is also the Executive Director of the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes (PILO). She says the system disadvantages the poorest of the poor.  

“In 2022, over 9 million learners were beneficiaries of the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP). This is 72% of our learners. The proportions across provinces relative to education performance are instructive 90% of learners in Limpopo, and 93% in the Eastern Cape need the NSNP relative to 57% in Gauteng, and 35% in the Western Cape.

“Those who follow comparative ‘provincial performance’ will recognise the perennial ‘low and high performers’ and thus the relationship between social inequality and educational outcomes,” she told The Telegram.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced a proud 80.1% pass rate of the class of 2022 on 20 January saying for the past 10 years, the NSC pass rate had consistently been going up – from 60% in 2009 to above 70% pass rates in recent years.

“The matric class of 2022 must be commended for maintaining this trend despite the astronomical challenges they faced – challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Eskom’s load shedding and sporadic service delivery protests,” Motshekga said.

She also boasted that the class of 2022 has the highest number of Bachelor passes attained in the entire history of the NSC examinations (38.4%).

Former Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) leader Pule Monama dismissed Motshekga’s chest-thumping as laughable.

“By right, we shouldn’t be boasting about the rate of bachelor passes. I have not seen those subjects, but I am sure these young people will not be creating any factories in the next 10 years, they are just not equipped with the necessary skills to do so,” he bemoaned.

According to government, a significant number of children dropped out of the systems before their matric exam. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) says the matric class of 2022 originally started with 1 177 089 pupils in Grade 1 in 2011, and there were 775 630 matric pupils in 2022.

According to Basic Education Director-General Mathanzima Mweli, the number of pupils between Grade 1 and Grade 4 remained relatively unchanged. But this number started to drop off from Grade 5, with 979 360 by 2015.

“Experts say this is because from Grade 4 they start to learn in English as the language of learning, and this has an effect on them,” Mweli said.

By Grade 10, the numbers started to increase from 930 960 in Grade 9 in 2019, to 1 104 452 in 2020. Mweli said this was because, by Grade 10, schools began to hold back pupils who wouldn’t pass grades 11 and 12.

“This statement by the Director General of Basic Education in his technical report on the results of the NSC class of 2022 is unequivocal. To achieve a high-performing education system our society and our economy so desperately need, we cannot only celebrate the success of the few, but we also must support the ‘weak’ and reduce our massive education inequalities. 

“A common characteristic of the world’s best-performing education systems – the ones that ‘fly’- is that they share a determination to achieve and maintain educational equality. Our educational inequalities reflect obstinate social inequality. Improving education is an indispensable component of achieving our social and economic goals.

“The DG indicated that social justice principles of access, redress, equity, efficiency, quality, and inclusivity should be the framework for measuring progress in education. He provided rich data against which this progress can be evaluated. The starkest indicator of how poverty affects children at the most basic level is the number of learners benefiting from NSNP. This was one of the first actions of the government in 1994,” said Metcalfe.

She said figures provided by DBE on social grant recipients in the class of 2022 show a similar pattern.

“The families of 88% of learners who wrote the NSC in 2022 in Limpopo have been recipients of social grants (care dependency, child support, disability, foster care, or a combination of these). The figures are 87% in the Eastern Cape, 69% in Gauteng, and 64% in the Western Cape,” said.

Metcalfe said 68% of the class of 2022, nationally, attended ‘no-fee’ schools serving the poorest communities.

“The figure for Limpopo is 92%, for Eastern Cape 86%, for Gauteng 38%, and the Western Cape 35%. Several observations arise from these three examples,” she said.

The one-time MEC of education in Gauteng said the government needs to invest more in helping the poor and the vulnerable.

“We will achieve the goals of social justice in education when relative poverty and wealth do not so clearly determine educational outcomes. We will ‘fly higher by supporting the weak’.”

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