Matric results

2007-12-29 00:00

With KwaZulu-Natal conforming to the national pattern, the 2007 matric results show a drop in the pass rate for the fourth consecutive year. The number of learners taking the examination has increased, and so has the number of passes, but the proportion of those who don’t make the grade has continued to increase.

This is not necessarily discouraging. When the pass rate leapt from 48,9% in 1999 to 73,2% in 2003, many feared that this was due to falling standards rather than improved pupil performance, and the subsequent decline suggests that the level of demand has been restored to an appropriately rigorous standard. Other factors may have contributed to this year’s fall-off. With public examinations encroaching ever deeper into school terms, teaching time has been steadily eroded in recent years, and the prolonged teacher strike compounded this problem in 2007. The strike also revealed a disturbing lack of professionalism among some teachers. Moreover, while the number of passes has increased with higher enrolments, it is not entirely clear how many of these have barely scraped through after the customary adjustment of their marks, and anecdotal reports from tertiary institutions suggest that each year’s crop of matriculants seems weaker than the last.

Indeed, one of the disturbing features of these results is the continuing decline in the percentage of university passes from 18,2% in 2004 through 17,0% in 2005, 16,2% last year and 15,1% now — and in this case the actual number of those who qualify for access to university has also dropped, from 86 531 in 2005 to 85 454 this year. Add in the high attrition rate at the universities themselves, and the prospects for a nation already short of skilled practitioners in the graduate professions are not encouraging. People competent in mathematics and the sciences are in notoriously short supply, and the current results do not promise any improvement.

In fact, studies published this month by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) indicate that with a shortage of professional and technical people across all sectors of the economy, the skills deficit could now have become permanent. Given the implications of this for future economic stability and growth, the falling matric pass and university entrance rates become seriously alarming. In the context of education, the SAIRR finding that the skills deficit applies in the teaching profession as well provides little reason to expect that the downward trend can be reversed.

The sub-standard performance by South African youngsters in recent international studies confirms that there are serious problems that the schools seem unable to address effectively. Then too, in a situation where adult education assumes ever increasing importance, the frustration with political fiddling and bureaucratic sabotage expressed in these pages yesterday by activist and retiring academic John Aitchison becomes highly disturbing.

Given all the flaws of the national education system, the performance of those youngsters who have achieved really impressive results becomes all the more commendable. As they celebrate, however, may they spare a thought for those schoolmates who, because of radical curriculum changes, are now faced with supplementary examinations that, if they again fail, could leave them lost in some directionless educational limbo.

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