The health of our education system

2011-01-08 15:55

The Grade 12 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination is one of the ways to assess whether the government is meeting its responsibility to improve the quality of education.

How our Grade 12 learners perform in these examinations is of great importance not only to the learners and their families, but to the nation.

The health of the education system, rightly or wrongly, tends to be judged on the performance of these young people.

Last year was an extraordinary year for all South Africans, particularly for learners.

The NSC examinations were themselves historic.

We experienced the greatest number of candidates in the history of the South African examination system: 537 543 full-time candidates wrote the examinations.

In 2009 the pass rate was 60.6% and in 2008 it was 62.5%.

Last year the department, through the efforts of so many in the system and within broader society, has been able to start the upward climb.

The national pass rate for the Class of 2010 is 67.8%. It represents an impressive increase of 7.2% on the 2009 results.

Out of 537 543, 364 513 learners have passed. Moreover, the percentage of Grade 12 learners who have qualified to enter a bachelor’s programme has gone up to 23.5% from 19.9% in 2009.

As South Africa congratulates the Class of 2010, the department’s efforts to ensure the integrity, credibility and legitimacy of the exams should be recognised.

The NSC examination system is a huge, complex one involving tremendous planning and preparation at all levels as well as a monitoring system that is continuously strengthened.

Last year’s NSC examination proceeded smoothly, demonstrating that our system is stabilising.

We have also consistently worked on improving the administration of the exam process.

Last year was the third year of the NSC examinations and the department made past examination papers widely available.

Many harbingers of gloom predicted a further decline for last year’s results or at best that the results would stay the same.

Critics were quick to point out the negative consequences of the extended holiday around the 2010 Fifa World Cup and the industrial action that took place towards the end of the year.

However, the World Cup was not a disruption.

The system had planned for it and the extraordinary event helped to motivate our schools, teachers, learners, parents and school-governing bodies to go the extra mile.

The provinces planned for the long vacation during the World Cup by providing Saturday and holiday programmes for senior learners as well as intensive study camps during the industrial action and the recovery period.

The majority of Grade 12 learners had completed the curriculum before the examinations and had sufficient time for preparation. The system thus proved to be resilient.

Disruptions caused by the teachers’ strike did introduce another dimension.

The strike galvanised learners to work even harder.

Intensive study camps were organised and post-strike recovery programmes were initiated.

Learners organised themselves independently into study groups and it was clear that they had started taking responsibility for their academic achievement.

This is a trend that we should all work hard to strengthen.

We experienced the demonstration of the president’s call that education is a societal issue.

Indeed, South Africans proved that they had the interests of our young people at heart through the extraordinary spirit of support for the Class of 2010.

Through the Quality Learning and Teaching Campaign, we secured the commitment of our various education stakeholders – including teacher unions, school-governing body associations representing parents and learner organisations – to work together to achieve quality education.

While we celebrate the 504 public schools that obtained 100% passes and 1 638 schools that scored between 80% and 99%, there is no doubt that there are still many more schools that need our attention and action.

We have set specific targets and deliverables against which South Africa can monitor our progress in addressing the challenges in education.

In the Action Plan to 2014 we set a target of 175 000 learners in the NSC exam with passes that qualify them to enter a bachelor’s programme in higher education.

The figure of 126 371 attained this year – up from 109 697 in 2009 – shows that we are already well on our way to achieving this target.

Given the importance of physical science and mathematics for development, we have set very ambitious targets in these subjects.

Therefore, while we are extremely pleased with the increase in the number of passes in physical science to 98 260 last year from 81 356 in 2009, we believe that we still need to aim higher.

The number of passes in mathematical literacy rose significantly to 241 576 in 2010 from 207 326 in 2009.

But we are concerned that the number of passes in mathematics declined to 124 749 last year from 133 505 in 2009.

This trend probably suggests that the system is reaching an equilibrium between mathematics and mathematical literacy.

But we will invest significant effort and resources in ensuring that the pass rate and the quality of mathematics is significantly improved.

We are also concerned about the decline in the absolute number of learners passing accounting, given the importance of this subject for economic growth and job creation.

Attention will therefore also be given to this subject this year.

I am very pleased to note the reduction in inequality in the spread of results.

The number of schools with a pass rate of below 20% has dropped from 6% in 2009 to 3% last year.

And whereas half of the “bachelor’s passes” were produced by 16% of the schools in 2009, this figure grew to 19% of schools last year.

We note, though, that we still have a long way to go and that the eradication of inequality remains a priority.

We should not overlook the fact that while the release of last year’s NSC results is a significant occasion for hundreds of thousands of learners and their families, the NSC examinations are the culmination of 12 years of schooling.

We are now strengthening our focus on the whole system – from Grade R to Grade 12.

As we analyse and learn from the results of last year, we now shift our focus to the beginning of the school year for this year and, in particular, the introduction of national assessments in the General Education and Training Band in February each year, which should capture the nation’s attention as much as the release of the Grade 12 results.

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