The shape of our inequalities

2017-01-08 00:08

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What can we say about the 2016 National Senior Certificate (NSC) results 22 years after our democracy was born and the work began of constructing a new, single, nonracial education system that would fulfil the constitutional commitment that every person would be able to achieve their potential?

In education, a narrow focus on year-on-year improvements, and exclusively on Grade 12, misses the big picture of significant changes over time, and the importance of focusing on the entire system of schooling, of which the matric NSC performance is only one component.

Since 1993, the number of pupils who complete Grade 12 annually has grown from about 280 000 in 1994 to the all-time high of 610 000 who wrote last year – more than twice as many.

In 1994, the matric pass rate was 58%, and from then until 1999 the average was only 52%. Between 2001 and 2010, the average pass rate improved to 67%.

Between 2011 and last year, the average pass rate has been 75%. This year’s pass rate is therefore within the mid-range of this period, which represents a steady and significant improvement in NSC performance since 1994, despite the enormous growth in the system and the pressures this places on resources.

What has not changed since 1994? The distortions of education inequalities persist despite the upward trend for all. These inequalities are multiple: inequalities of race, of class, of geographical location, of gender, of language.

The pervasive and unchanging shape of inequality in South Africa is the greatest challenge to prosperity and social cohesion. Education contributes significantly to this inequality. If we do not reduce inequality and improve the quality of our education system, our development remains precarious.

Some of the indicators of this inequality in 2016 include:

. At least 20% of the public schools serving the poorest communities achieved a pass rate of less that 40%. For the public schools serving the wealthiest communities (top two quintiles), it was 1% of schools.

. At least 85% of public schools serving the wealthiest communities (top quintile) achieved a pass rate of more than 80%. Only 27% of schools serving the poorest quintile achieved a pass rate of more than 80%.

Poverty in South Africa coincides with race. African learners are the most affected by this differential.

Inequalities of access are evident on the dropout rate. Using data between 2012 and 2014, the department of basic education has shown that there are wide differences between provinces in the percentage of learners who have completed Grade 12 by the age of 22. In Gauteng, 67% of young people aged 22 have completed Grade 12. It can be assumed that if Grade 12 has not been completed by age 22, the incidence of later completion will be low.

Thirty-three percent of young people will proceed to navigate life without the basic educational credential fundamental to many others – which is why increased access to quality vocation and training colleges is critical. Is Gauteng unusual? Yes – it is the highest-performing province in this regard. In the Eastern Cape only 28%, in Limpopo only 37%, and in the Free State only 48% of pupils have completed Grade 12. Those who have not completed Grade 12 suffer a crippling start to the pursuit of employment and education advancement.

Learners from the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal who do reach Grade 12 have a reduced chance of succeeding in the NSC. Fifty-four percent of pupils who attempted the NSC in 2016 were from these provinces and 37% failed. These provinces are the poorest in the country, and their performance gives shape to our inequalities.

But their failure did not become evident in 2016. In 2013, when these learners were in Grade 9 (ignoring the argument that they would not have proceeded as a cohort without multiple failures), the three provinces performed the worst in the Annual National Assessment in English (first additional language). Forty-four percent of learners in the Eastern Cape, 49% in KwaZulu-Natal and 54% in Limpopo performed at the “not achieved” level (the lowest of five performance levels).

The results of 2016 are not unanticipated, given that these leaners have had to learn in the generally poorest communities, in the least resourced schools and in the provinces that carry the greatest burden of scale and administrative complexity. The administrative complexity is such that both Limpopo and the Eastern Cape have been under section 100 administration for periods within the last five years.

Only 11% of the matric class of 2016 came from the two top-performing provinces: the Free State and Western Cape. Their achievement must be celebrated, but they manage an entirely different scale of administrative complexity in different socioeconomic conditions.

Our inequalities are obdurate. We have seen this pattern from 1994 and while there is an upward movement in overall performance, the inequalities persist.

The minister is correct that careful and urgent action is necessary. This action must include improving administrative systems so that greater efficiencies are achieved, improving support to teachers and improving the availability of textbooks. Our constitutional framework provides a sufficient basis for the minister to take the decisive action she has committed to. The poorest of our young people must be given hope of achieving the quality education they seek.

Metcalfe is a professor of education at the University of the Witwatersrand and a former education MEC of Gauteng

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Read more on:    matric 2016  |  inequality  |  education

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