THE images of a beaming Asil Motala and other top matriculants that were broadcast around the country during this year’s matric ceremony would surely rank as one of the proudest moments in the life of any parent or pupil. The images took me back to my own time in high school, Langsyde High School, almost 14 years ago, where such “standing ovations” were part of the monthly schedule. It was not on such a grand scale, mind you. Every month, we would write tests and from the marks of those tests, the class teacher would compile the top 10 pupils for the month and would call them out, from number 10 all the way up to number one. Almost every pupil in class would be crossing his or her fingers, hoping to be somewhere on the list. There were those who had written themselves off in regard to such an achievement, but many worked hard and hoped and prayed to be called out. Of course, there were the regular suspects who monopolised the first three positions, but every now and then, a dark horse would emerge to disrupt the status quo. As one of the top pupils, you stood there in front of your classmates as they applauded. You knew you had achieved something and the following month you would work even harder to make sure you kept, or improved, your position on that exclusive list. All this reached greater heights before the June or November school breaks, when an early assembly would be called and each class would call out its top 10 to receive their reports in front of the whole school. Such a list gave us, as pupils, a sense of personal satisfaction, confidence and achievement. It created healthy competition as we jostled to make it into the top 10, if not the top five. More importantly, it allowed the teachers and parents to track a pupil’s progress through the year. Such a list, if my younger brother in Grade 11 this year is to be believed, is a thing of the past. “We don’t do that anymore,” he said mockingly. “We have a more sophisticated system.” There have been changes in the way pupils are graded and the threshold they need to attain in order to be considered ready for the next grade. My brother might be studying with a more “sophisticated system”, but is that system performing its core function, producing young people who are ready to be contributing members of society? If the reports about pupils’ capabilities are accurate, one would argue that this system is a dismal failure. An associate in the teaching fraternity tells me that their feeder school, a primary school, studies for only half the day while the rest of the time is spent on the sports field. Consequently, many of the pupils who arrive for Grade 8 have not mastered the basic skills and will struggle all the way through high school, and there is little that teachers can do to remedy the situation. We cannot keep quiet and celebrate when children are not taught but simply “kicked upstairs”. We celebrate the percentage of high results, yet the media are awash with reports that many pupils pass matric without the ability to construct a sentence. Who in their right mind would think that a threshold of 30% is enough to pass a pupil to the next grade? A pupil who knows three out of a possible 10 things cannot be ready to move anywhere. When I was at school, anything below 50% in a subject was a fail. The minister and the president have every right to celebrate the high results. They made their quota and, most importantly, the results will come in handy when highlighting the government’s “achievements” during the run-up to the elections. But the high percentage should not be allowed to take precedence over the quality of what has been produced. Of the almost 80% pass rate, how many scored enough to qualify for university? That’s the question we should ask. Every pupil is capable of standing in front of the country, like Motala, to ensure that we too demand quality rather than quantity. • Thamsanqa Magubane is a senior reporter at The Witness.