Making unfair comparisons

2008-01-09 00:00

The Freedom Charter was clear about it: the doors of education and culture must be opened to all. This clause was a response to the dehumanising apartheid ideology, which made it almost impossible, especially for the African child, to access quality education.

The commitment of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education to provide education to all has been reflected over the past four years by the sharp increase in the number of full-time learners who have written their final-year school examinations, jumping from 97 363 full-time candidates in 2003 to 148 093 in 2007. One could fill King’s Park Stadium with the extra 50 000 people who wrote the matric examination last year.

Unfortunately, the significance of this factor gets lost in the media’s pre-occupation with percentages when it comes to matric results. While it is good to analyse the matric results, any statistics expert can tell how deceiving percentages can be and how they can be manipulated.

An obsession with percentages can also lead to unfair comparisons, especially when KwaZulu-Natal is compared with other provinces, given the difference in pupil numbers. Also to be taken into account when comparisons are made is the number of part-time candidates per province as the pass rate is only calculated on the number of full-time candidates. About 40% of candidates who wrote their matric in some of the “top” provinces enrolled as part-time candidates, compare with KZN’s 25% part-time candidates.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education is not only the largest education department in the country, but also accounted for 26% of the senior certificate candidates in South Africa.

Of the 148 093 candidates who sat for the senior certificate examination, 94 421 passed, representing 63,8% of those who wrote. This means that the province has the largest number of candidates who pass the senior certificate in the whole country. The province that produced the second largest number of passes has 20 000 fewer passes than KZN. We are proud that of the 16 000 more learners who passed this year nationally, about 12 000 (11 979) are from the province of KZN. What a meaningful contribution towards closing the skills gap!

The number of learners who passed this year in subjects such as mathematics and physical science has increased. In 2006 we had 24 470 learners who passed mathematics in standard grade, whereas in 2007 we saw an increase to 30 757. In mathematics higher grade we saw an increase in pass rate from 4 726 in 2006 to 5 285 in 2008.

The figures also show that 21 443 candidates who sat for the examination obtained passes with university endorsement, representing 14,5% of the total number who sat for the examination. The implication here is that universities may have to find 2 342 more spaces than in 2007.

The increase in matric passes is not a coincidence, but the result of a spirited resolve by the department to help our people access quality education.

The department has discouraged principals from enroling borderline cases as part-time candidates. The success of this approach can be seen in the proportional decrease in part-time candidates: in 2003, 36 403 part-time candidates wrote the matric examination, compared with 40 445 four years later.

Awareness campaigns have also helped to ensure that more people have access to the education that we provide, as many impoverished communities are now able to take their children to school free of charge if they cannot afford to pay school fees. This has resulted in a decline in the number of learners who drop out of school before Grade 12 — a significant source of gratification to us.

As MEC Ina Cronjé pointed out in her speech on December 28, 2007, we are not interested in the manipulation of pass percentages. What counts for us is the number of learners who are accessing education and the number who have passed. This is what increases the skills base in the country and the province, not a higher percentage of fewer learners who are allowed access to education.

The preoccupation with percentages leaves the story incomplete, thus denying citizens the information with which to enter into a meaningful and effective dialogue with their government.

• Sihle Mlotshwa works for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education as media and citizen liaison.

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