Quality, not quantity, is what our schools need

2014-02-10 14:26

The recent matric results unleashed a torrent of criticism that had been building in anticipation of yet another rise in the national pass rate. It might seem odd to decry higher pass rates and hard-working learners as a bad thing, but it is actually the only way South Africa can set its basic education back on track.

At the ANC’s election manifesto announcement, the president proclaimed that his party, if re-elected, would extend schooling from the current 12 years to 14, with two years of compulsory pre-schooling making up the difference. This is surely a result of the criticism received over matric results and the claim that the only reason pass rates were higher was because the requirements were lower. Sadly, this is the continuation of a trend that has dogged the Ministry of Education for several years.

Some subjects now require students to score as low as 30% in order to achieve a pass, while others require 40%. The knowledge, or lack thereof, represented by such low numbers pushes matric towards the brink of, as deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Tinyiko Maluleke said "meaninglessness, worthlessness and irrelevance".

The purpose of schooling, particularly at a high school level, is to prepare learners for either university or the job market. Unfortunately, most school-leavers are nowhere near well-equipped for either. Johnathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, has stated that it does not matter what the pass-rate is as the numbers are “grossly misleading” and that university admissions departments treat them as such.

The government should understand that while it seems they are helping learners to pass, they are actually deeply compromising the future of an entire generation and the country. This is highlighted by the failing of the education system to meaningfully improve the number of students matriculating in science and maths, two of the most important subjects as cited by universities.

According to the Moneyweb website, figures from the Department of Basic Education show just 26.1% of candidates who wrote mathematics in the 2013 matric exams achieved a pass mark of 50% or more, and, of the 562 112 full-time candidates who wrote the National Senior Certificate (NSC) last year, just 43% sat the maths paper (it is compulsory for learners to either study mathematics or maths literacy). A total of 97 790 of these learners (40.5%) achieved a pass mark of 40% and above.

A pass mark of 50% is required for entrance into bachelor degrees in the sciences, commerce and engineering yet a school pass requires just 40%.

The suggestion of a further two years is unquestionably the wrong one. The education department is plagued by a lack of resources, the textbook debacle being a telling example, and extending the curriculum will merely stretch what they do have even further. Instead, South Africa needs to focus on repairing the system it already has so that it can do justice to the millions of learners in this country.

Standards can no longer be dropped any lower, indeed they should be raised, as a further dip could see serious repercussions from tertiary establishments and big employers. I firmly believe that instead of employing more teachers to cover the extra two years, we need to focus on improving the staff we already have. The quality of teacher, particularly in the early years, has a huge impact on the learners’ interest and performance. When it comes to subjects such as maths and science, which can prove extremely challenging, it’s crucial that an interest in these subjects is instilled at an early age as it is very difficult to catch up later in the curriculum.

Students need to have access to the materials they need. While it isn’t fair for a child to fail because the education department failed to deliver their textbooks, lowering standards so that they can pass without them is not a viable solution.

Twelve years of schooling is enough time to educate a child to the level of being able to find a job and excel at it or secure a place at university. Fourteen years is simply a way to spend more time failing at those goals. We cannot afford to waste more time, resources and opportunities; the time has come to fix what we have and start producing the kind of students our country needs.

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