When the 2013 matric results were released on Monday, the Deputy Basic Education Minister, Enver Surty, chastised academia for denigrating the schooling system.
He said that now was not the time for pessimistic criticism, but for celebration and inspiring hope.
Of course, there is improvement, but no one is really acknowledging the 550?000 students who started school 12 years ago but have been silently excluded from the schooling system, dropping out before matric.
For every 100 students who started school 12 years ago, only 51 made it to matric last year, 40 passed and 16 qualified to go to university.
In Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s 5?000-word speech on Monday, she devoted all of 10 words to discussing the issue: “The sector needs to urgently reduce repetition and dropout drastically.”
In discussing the results, she also said: “Contrary to what some would like the nation and the public to believe, the truth is in terms of learning outcomes in the sector, education remains an equaliser between poor and rich.”
If South Africa’s education is an “equaliser” between poor and rich, why is it that South Africa’s income inequality has increased since its transition?
While it is true that if quality education is offered to rich and poor it will lead to a situation of increased social mobility, this is not the case.
Apart from a small minority, most black children continue to receive an education that condemns them to the underclass of South African society.
Poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social status of their parents, irrespective of their motivation or ability. This is how income inequality increases.
Like all educational data in South Africa, the matric results hide enormous inequalities. Before getting to the 2013 matric results, let me summarise some of the findings from the numerous studies highlighting South Africa’s ongoing inequalities in education.
The 2007 study of the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality showed huge geographic inequalities in the country, with 41% of rural Grade 6 children being functionally illiterate compared with 13% of urban Grade 6 children.
The Pre-progress in Reading Literacy Study (pre-PIRLS)of 2011 showed that large linguistic inequalities exist. Of the children whose home language was Xitsonga, Tshivenda or Sepedi, one in two could not read by the end of Grade 4 compared with one in 10 for English and Afrikaans children.
Stats SA’s General Household Survey of 2011 showed large racial inequalities in matric attainment.
Only 44% of black and coloured youth aged 23-24 had their matric compared with 83% of Indian youth and 88% of white youth.
But if we take a closer look at the 2013 matric results, we will see that they also hide severe inequalities. When allocating funding to schools, the department classifies them into one of five categories called quintiles.
Each quintile is meant to have 20% of schools from Quintile 1 (the poorest 20% of schools) to Quintile?5 (the richest 20% of schools). The funding allocations are R905 a learner in poor schools with higher quintiles receiving progressively less funding, down to R156 a learner.
On the surface, the differences between the matric pass rates by quintile are not too large. But the important factor is enrolment and dropout rates.
By comparing Grade 8 enrolments of the class of 2013, 49% of the poorest students had dropped out before matric, while only 26% of learners from more prosperous homes had quit school before matric.
Success rates are lower for poorer learners: as a percentage, there are four times as many Quintile 5 learners passing with a university exemption compared with those from Quintile 1.
In highlighting these results, I think that things are improving and we should give praise where it is due.
Because of this, I think Motshekga is the best education minister we have had in terms of her reforms.
But it does not absolve the administration from its responsibility of providing a quality education to every South African child, and not only the rich.
»?Spaull is an education researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University. He blogs about education research at www.nicspaull.com