Guest Column

OPINION: Matrics deserve a shot at real achievement

2020-01-09 17:16
Lowering education standards is not a silver bullet, but a death knell for South Africa learners, says the writer. (iStock)

Lowering education standards is not a silver bullet, but a death knell for South Africa learners, says the writer. (iStock)

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After 12 years of grade-school education, which outcomes do average South African school leavers actually attain? Are they educated in line with standards on the African continent, or in line with global benchmarks? The answer is a resounding "no" to both,  meaning we need to ditch the obsession with pass-rates, writes Corrin Varady

Each year hundreds of thousands of learners of school-leaving age in South Africa, having put down their pens and completed their last exams, face the anxiety of their futures hanging in the balance of their matric results. 

For the 81% of public school matriculants who, according to the Department of Basic Education, passed matric this year, the wait is over.

They must now face the choice of either furthering their education, entering directly into the world of work, or tackling the labour market during a period of historic unemployment.

Whichever fortunes await them individually, we hope they are adequately prepared. 

Even unemployment, a reality that 58.2% of South African youth currently face, needs a level of preparation.

This begs the question: are we worrying about the right thing by placing so much value on matric pass-rates in a country without looking deeper at the systemic causes of this low benchmark? 

The South African education system has gone through several iterations since 1994, edging further away from the deliberate disenfranchisement of millions of people. The government’s intention still remains to give all learners equitable quality education which should, in turn, result in them being ready to contribute meaningfully to the economy.

In 2019, the imminent deployment of tech hardware in classrooms across the country and the introduction of a coding curriculum in South African schools were announced. In a bid to improve literacy, the government made a concerted effort of investment into Early Grade Reading, promising much-needed future gains in literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy.

Yet while there is a collective vested interest in seeing basic, TVET, and tertiary results improve, it's hard to shake the feeling that the government has not yet quite figured out how to transform this vision into a full-fledged reality. 

A culture of focusing on pass-rates has led us to believe that 81% is a laudable achievement. However, according to Stellenbosch professor and senior researcher, Dr Nic Spaull’s analysis of the real achievement-rate amongst 2019 matrics, only 19% (or 1 in 5) of them are eligible for university entrance. 

With first-year university drop-out rates sitting at around 40%, this means that only a maximum 11% of the current cohort will eventually graduate from university.

So, the 81% matric pass-rate announced sounds less impressive when compared to the country’s school dropout rate, the tertiary achievement rate, and the newly-implemented standards of Certificate, Diploma and  Bachelor pass categorisations. 

In reality, with a Certificate Pass (40% pass in your home language, two subjects above 40%, three subjects above 30%, with an allowance of one subject fail), "passing matric" merely means that learners are considered to have completed basic schooling. To enter tertiary studies, learners will have had to pass their exams with higher marks, as set by the entry requirements of the tertiary institutions they intend studying at.

This is where the South African education system fails its matriculants - the majority of them do not have high enough marks to enter tertiary studies, even though they are deemed to have passed matric. This leaves them completely unprepared for the future.

After 12 years of grade-school education, which outcomes do average South African school leavers actually attain? Are they educated in line with standards on the African continent, or in line with global benchmarks? The answer is a resounding "no" to both,  meaning we need to ditch the obsession with pass-rates. 

Instead, the government needs to redouble efforts to ensure that both teachers and learners are equipped for a 21st-century economy, rather than focusing on quick-fix, low outcome solutions.  It will be a long road ahead but it is only through a commitment to both learners and teachers, coupled with the right investment in digital education and a focus-shift to real achievement-rates, that will make all the difference. 

It's time we stopped misleading our youth into believing that merely passing matric is an achievement that will magically set them up for future success. Instead, it is our responsibility to understand how we can build an education system that exchanges today’s pass for an opportunity for every learner to attain real achievement. 

- Dr Corrin Varady is the CEO of IDEA Digital Education. Recognised by Microsoft as a global thought leader on education, he works in South Africa, across Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the edtech innovation space.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.  

Read more on:    education  |  matric
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