OPINION | Bekithemba Dube: Mmusi was on the right track, but the education system needs rewiring

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A 30% subject pass rate or overall pass rate is causing damage to pupils writes Bekithemba Dube. He looks at what can be done to reconfigure the system.


Mmusi Maimane’s view on increasing the South African pass rate from 30% to 50% has received mixed responses from various stakeholders. Among them are the teachers’ organisations, including the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).

These two organisations stated that Maimane was using the country’s education system as a "national campaign for his political ambitions" (City Press, 10 Jan 2022).

In response to the teachers’ unions, Maimane noted that:

"Teacher unions have always rejected the idea of continuous teacher assessments. Our argument is that we need to ask better of our teachers so that they are not passing pupils at 30%. So, of course, the unions are going to try and defend their position because it will reflect badly on some of their members, which is not a reflection of all their members."

The conversations between the teachers’ organisations and Mmusi Maimane indicate ambivalence about the reciprocal relations between politics and education. The conversations also highlight how political influence can either build or destroy an education system.

A basic observation of moving subject pass rate from 30% to 50% (depending on how one interprets it) generates conflict rather than a collective approach to addressing the pressing curriculum issues in South Africa.

This article, informed by post-colonial theories, and more particularly the concept of the third space (first space being Maimane, second space being teachers’ unions, and third space where I believe the two should operate from to reconfigure relevant curriculum in South Africa), seeks to unpack the two conversations in relation to pass/subject rate in South Africa in the international context and to zero in on an argument for the need to configure the curriculum with best practice.

Unpacking Maimane’s comments

Unpacking Maimane’s comments, he raises five issues in his argument for moving subject pass rate from 30% to 50%, namely the country’s developmental aspiration; motivated, qualified, and ambitious teachers; global economy; and finally, better pay for teachers.

Summing up his observation, he notes that "education is the way out of this economic mess. The 4IR economy requires specified hard skills. Our teachers are the frontline workers in the quest for economic prosperity. We must reward good teachers. We must remove bad teachers and attract new talent".

The premise of his thinking touches on crucial elements that are pertinent for the South African child in relation to the global competitors and economic emancipation. There is a sense from his sentiment that educating a child is not only for South Africa but that this child should be equally competitive with their peers in the global market. Thus, telling the world that our subject pass rate is 30% is a mockery of our education system.

It brings a false sense among learners that if one gets 30% for a subject, he or she has passed the subject, but a combination of all subjects with 30% cannot make one secure university placement. Thus, the critical question to which the Department of Basic Education should respond is what the rationale is behind a 30% subject pass? What does this 30% reflect on South African education compared to international standards? What harm is there to move from a 30% to 50% pass rate? Once these questions have been answered, perhaps new conversations can emerge, and the discussions will come from an informed position.

Interestingly, the unions’ response to Maimane’s comments is based on an inadequate explanation of what is meant by 30%.

The response does not address other issues raised by Maimane, such as development of the country, motivated, qualified, and ambitious, global economy, and surprisingly, the issue of salaries.

However, Maimane’s sentiments are seen as coming from someone with a dying political life and using education as political oxygen for survival. What if Maimane’s comments were from someone belonging to the ANC, and not the DA or EFF – would it have gone this far?

Again, why is the response targeted at his person and political affiliation rather than contextualising his argument in light of global trends of academic excellence in the quest to improve economic zones? What is the difficulty or harm in moving from 30% to 50% subject/overall pass rate?

The response to these questions will be of interest in shaping educational conversations in South Africa. While the unions are entitled to their positions as representatives of teachers, it is prudent to also see the damage that a 30% subject pass rate or overall pass rate is causing to pupils, such as failure to access university and compete with their international counterparts. 

30% is a reflection of a failed curriculum practice

Cognisant of the foregoing, moving into the third space as suggested above is critical. This is a place where all people involved in the issue meet at a neutral space to juxtapose the trajectories of education.

To begin the conversation in the third space, an acknowledgement is necessary that education is key to any development, and a compromise on this has an everlasting impact on nation-building.

Once this is understood, the educational stakeholders can enter into honest conversations about the relevance of 30%, as none of us as parents would be happy with a 30% subject pass rate. From my angle, the 30% is a reflection of a failed curriculum practice, not only in South Africa, but in most African countries with nationalised education systems. Narrowing this to South Africa while also applicable to other African countries, is an indication that we have detained learners for 12 years, and to please learners and parents, we comfort them with a 30% subject pass rate. 

Third space allows us to interrogate such a practice in order to map best practices for our children, economy, and contribution to humanity through education.

To me, 30% indicates that some pupils are not supposed to be doing the curriculum that is forced on them in schools.

The CAPS document as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ curriculum is no longer relevant, rather a fluid and contextualised CAPS is now required. The latter speaks of a curriculum that does not seek to channel learners through one avenue, such as passing Grade 12 and going to university. There is a need for a curriculum that does not detain learners in subjects they have no interest in or are not capable of doing. Rather, various courses – not subjects – should be introduced alongside the main curriculum practices.

Critical courses 

Critical courses, which are in short supply in South Africa, should be taught as early as Grade 7, where a pupil can be awarded a diploma for a critical skill of their choice. This means bringing some TVET courses to basic education, such as building, welding, civil engineering, manufacturing, entrepreneurship, software engineering, among other courses. This would allow learners to get recognised qualifications along with their Grade 12 results, cognisant that some learners with passion and good skills in some courses mentioned above may not have access to TVET colleges and universities because of a 30% subject pass rate. 

The foregoing requires a revamp of the education system so that after 12 years of basic education, learners have something practical to show rather than having all learners moving in one direction and getting nothing at the end of Grade 12.

I am of the view that an increase from 30% to 50% is indispensable, desirable, and doable and above all, that TVET courses should be taught from Grade 7 to 12, so that learners with an interest in practical subjects have recognised courses for their livelihood, even if they do not perform very well in Grade 12.

Dr Bekithemba Dube is a senior lecturer and School of Education Studies and Programme Head: Foundation and Intermediate Phase at the University of the Free State

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