Whenever the issue of our education system is raised, I almost entirely lose interest because over the years, I have found that people often put their opinions on the matter forward as fact. Recently, a study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked South Africa 148th out of 148 countries on the quality of maths and science education. Metro FM Talk Show host, Rams Mabote, much like many other media pundits, sensationalised the matter, commenting on his show as if it were something we should all be in a collective panic about. Later, it was found that the study was conducted with many irregularities and did not deserve much attention at all. Firstly, the methodology used to come to this conclusion was by asking a total of 47 South African business executives about the quality of maths and science education in South Africa. No thorough, reference appropriate research was undertaken during the “study”, thus we can conclude that this was just another large lump of opinion (by these 47 business executives) meant to pass as a fact. Sorry WEF, but we are not buying that crap!
Back to the real issue, is there a need to constantly make so much noise about this 30% pass rate though? I am a product of the now phased-out National Senior Certificate (NSC) curriculum which stipulates that a learner should study a minimum of seven school subjects. This is how it works: according to the NSC model, each learner’s curriculum must include one home language, a first additional language, life orientation, plus they have a choice between mathematics and mathematical literacy. Those are the four compulsory subjects. In addition to that, it is compulsory for them to take three additional subjects of their choice. The pass mark for the home language is 40% and for the rest of the other subjects it is 30%. Should a learner obtain a mark of less than 40% for their home language then they would automatically be retained. Also, should a learner obtain a mark of 40% or more for their home language, but ends up obtaining a mark of less than 30% for two or more of their other subjects then that also means that they would have to be retained.
These are the benchmarks as set by the Department of Basic Education. What some people fail to acknowledge is that in the bigger picture, the 30% pass mark changes nothing when it comes to the admissions policy of any institution of higher education. Their requirements remain high to ensure that only the cream of the crop gain the hard-earned opportunity to pursue their post-matric studies there. Now I would like you to think about something. It is under this very system that Mbilwi Secondary School in the Limpopo province has continually been producing great results and remains one of the top schools for maths and science in South Africa. It is also under this same system that Mmadikgetho Komane, a learner from Glen Cowie Secondary School, also in the Limpopo province, received straight A’s and became the best learner of the class of 2012. Keep in mind that 2012 is the same year in which many schools in Limpopo had not received textbooks for almost three quarters of the year and where the department of education is in shambles and currently under re-administration. In-spite of the disarray, Limpopo’s matric class of 2012 still managed to improve the province’s overall pass rate and 17 out of the top 30 learners in the entire country came from the most northern part of South Africa.
My point here is, increasing the pass mark to 40%, 50% or 70% is not going to miraculously solve the problems that we are facing with regards to our education, it only means that we are going to have a higher number of learners failing to pass grade 12. I am by no means saying that we should not address the issue of where our education is headed. We do have a crisis within our education system but the 30% pass mark is not the main issue. The issue here is, we have a shortage of qualified quality educators.
Another factor that may have more of a negative impact on our education system than the, “30% debate” is that it has become too, “one-size-fits-all” and singular in stream. This makes it difficult for learners to successfully pass all of their subjects. Why is a learner who plans to study journalism forced to study mathematics in grade 12, whereas they should actually be focusing on the subjects that are in line with what they intend to study post-matric?
In numerous countries around the world, vocational education or the option to vocationalise one’s own curriculum has proved to be a very successful method. For example, in Zimbabwe, once a learner gets to senior phase in high school, they choose three or four subjects which are in line with the field of study which they intend on pursuing. So, an aspiring doctor would almost entirely focus on mathematics and science, whereas an aspiring economist would focus on commerce related subjects. Another positive factor regarding the education system in Zimbabwe, which is arguably the best education system in Africa, is that they have thirteen grades at basic education level instead of twelve. The thirteenth year serves as a foundation year intended to bridge the gap between secondary-level education and tertiary-level education. Once they begin their studies at an institution of higher education, the bridge between high school and university is thus not that huge, making it easier for learners to cope. Could we perhaps learn from our neighbours?
Back to South Africa. Given enough time to scrutinise the statistics, you will realise that South African learners are progressing. Each and every year there is an increase in the number of learners who qualify for university. That’s a good thing, right? Yes! Still, that fact is not as popular as the 30% debate. Over the years, those learners, despite what the hype may suggest, were not limited or “psychologically stunted” by the 30% benchmark. What I am simply trying to say here is that this 30% benchmark should not be used as an excuse for learners to limit themselves. Are we giving enough thought to other issues affecting our education system which are, to some extent, beyond the government’s control, like the lack of quality educators? Unfortunately, nobody can be forced into becoming a teacher. And in recent times, the interest in pursuing a career in education has gradually dropped, worsening the already low number of qualified educators that we have. It goes without saying that a shortage of qualified educators will have negative effects on the quality of education.
Given that our education system is so singular in stream and that there is a shortage of educators in our schools, I believe that the current pass mark is a realistic expectation from the Department of Basic Education. Until all the schools in South Africa have adequate resources, quality teachers and a curriculum which is more practical, I believe that the pass mark should stay as it is. At the end of the day, you should give credit where it is due. There is progress being made and that is what we should be commending. The fact that there are schools which continually put their best foot forward and learners who show progress despite many, many obstacles on a daily basis must always be taken into account. For now, let us focus on identifying the real issues and implementing practical and realistic solutions. Stop seeing the forest for the trees, let the 30% issue rest, folks!
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