The tiring matric pass rate chorus

The ‘increasing’ matric pass rate, celebrated year after year, does not take into account the number of pupils who didn’t make it that far, covering up a much deeper crisis in our education system.

In a country with a broken education system, it is delusional to celebrate an increase in the matric pass rate. But each year when results are announced, the same tired chorus sings of the pass rate going up again. According to Education Minister Angie Motshekga, the class of 2019 pass rate was 81.3%. 

In the midst of the euphoria, can the country pause to ask: Who gets to pass? News of the results and the public reaction to them brings to mind an article by education expert Nic Spaull. Though written in 2012, it is of relevance to this moment because it cautions against uncritically embracing matric results.  

Spaull says the pass rate is not a true reflection of progress when set against the number of learners who enrolled a decade earlier. This is indicative of the deep systemic issues that continue to plague the public education sector, where learners still fall through the cracks.  

“Too often we only look at the matric pass rate (what proportion of matrics pass the exam) instead of the number of students that pass matric out of the cohort that started 12 years earlier. While the matric pass rate in the past three years has hovered around 70%, this ignores the fact that about half of the total cohort has already dropped out by grade 12. 

“If we look instead at the students who pass matric relative to the number of students enrolled in grade 2, 10 years earlier, the figures are much more startling. Out of all the students that were in grade 2 in 2001, only 38% passed matric in 2011. The vast majority of drop-out takes place between grade 10 and grade 12.”

Poor learning conditions

It is vital to resolve the question of who gets to pass as an antidote to the annual obligatory celebration of matric results. That is because poor learning conditions persist in no-fee schools and make it impossible for learners enrolled in these schools to pass – or even, in some instances, to make it out of school alive. Lumka Mkhethwa and Michael Komape are among the learners who lost their lives to a broken education system: in their case, poor sanitation facilities.

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Mkhethwa and Komape – and many more of which we are unaware – fell into and drowned in pit toilets at their schools. They died needlessly. The Department of Basic Education failed to honour the 2013 court order that made it legally binding to have Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure. These are regulations that define the conditions around infrastructure that make a school, a school. They stipulate the basic level of infrastructure that every school must meet to function properly and include water, electricity, the internet, working toilets, safe classrooms with a maximum of 40 learners, security, libraries, laboratories and sports facilities. 

The department missed its November 2016 deadline to fix existing unsafe and inappropriately resourced schools. Inappropriate school structures include those made from wood, asbestos, zinc and mud. 

Two-faced education policy 

The dilapidated and dangerous state of schools is one thing. Broken education policy is another. Public schooling is often referred to as a “two-education system”. This description is derived from the state of schools that children from working-class and poor backgrounds attend in contrast with those that children from families in the middle and upper income groups attend. 

Reflecting those divides, the basic education system categorises schools into five groups or quintiles, from the “most poor” (quintile 1) to the “least poor” (quintile 5). Quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools are often referred to as no-fee schools as they cannot charge fees. A clear mark of the poor versus the rich learner is whose parents can afford to pay for quality and better education.

The problem with the quintile system is the disparity in material conditions among schools. And because this becomes a determining factor for learning outcomes, it is doubly important to ask who gets to pass. Ultimately, who gets to pass is skewed given that quality and equal education is not provided for all.

One of many examples of a dilapidated no-fee school is Mcheni primary school outside Tsolo in the Eastern Cape. It had to suspend classes when weather conditions made the buildings unsafe for learning and teaching to take place. And this happens often, especially at schools in rural areas.

Improving education equality

It’s one thing to talk about access to education, which has increased for many children, but what we are not tackling is low quality and high inequality in education. This is not to say the system should make learning “easy” by lowering the required pass rate to 30% but that the quality of education must be improved overall. 

As an example, the Equal Education movement’s annual report for 2010 and 2011 noted that 165 matric pupils at a school in Rondebosch obtained 404 A grades (including for life orientation), while in 19 Khayelitsha high schools, 3 228 matrics obtained only 44 As. 

The disparities are worsened by initiatives such as the progression policy, in which a learner can fail a phase only once before being promoted to the next grade. Such policies contribute to the continuing crisis in which learners either drop out in later grades or are held back under the premise that struggling pupils will be more likely to pass the second time around and so push up the pass rate.

Add to this the country’s literacy crisis, in which 78% of grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language. The literacy results were revealed in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016 and show that the narrative that “learners working hard” are able to pass is misleading. These children lack basic foundational literacy skills that are essential for educational development throughout their schooling. 

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The irony with no-fee schools is that there is a policy in place, the National Norms and Minimum Standards for School Funding, that determines resource allocation to schools per learner. However, funding per learner can be woefully inadequate, as seen at Vhulaudzi Secondary School in Matakani near Makhado in rural Limpopo, where the budget allocation per learner is R790 and does not meet the allocation amount as set out in the National Norms and Standards for School Funding.

Underfunding has also resulted in a shortage of textbooks, which affects teaching and learning as teachers run out of time to cover the entire curriculum as they spend it writing out notes on the blackboard in the absence of the prescribed books.

Worse still, our broken education system directly contributes to the skyrocketing unemployment rate. Learners from poor communities with no-fee schools are more likely to be trapped in intergenerational poverty and deprivation. They become a reservoir of cheap labour or are unemployable. Again, who gets to pass? 

It is certainly not the majority of black and working-class children. Those that do make it from these communities are used to justify a flawed system. Those that don’t make it are “the problem”, rather than the problem being learners facing structural and systemic problems created by the department. 

The real matric pass rate should take into consideration the systemic problems as a way of telling us who really passed grade 12, who really got to pass.

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