The recently reported recommendations made by the Ministerial Task Team are indeed a step in the right direction for education in South Africa, however there has to be an appreciation that the challenges are also endemic in the system. For example, the recommendations do not even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the question of the high dropout rate before matric.
One is very happy that the report by the Ministerial Task Team agrees with public opinion concerning the quality of matric. But one cannot help but ask, are these recommendations good enough?
Lowering the minimum pass in matric to 30 percent was also seen as deliberate doubt on the abilities and potential of learners. For the majority of learners, a solid school education represents the only means available for ending the legacy of family poverty. But raising the minimum pass should also be accompanied by improvement in teacher competence, better infrastructure for the many schools that lack the basics, leadership that is accountable and an active participation of parents in the governance of the school.
Another thorny issue has been around the credibility of testing and marking. One of the achievements of the Department of Basic Education in recent years has been putting in place strong security measures around the exams so that the exam papers are not easily leaked, and therefore compromise the integrity of the exam.
Several concerns are still lingering in the testing and marking system. One is about the competence of the markers. This is one issue that is strongly contested by the labour movement. Whenever it is raised, it does get them hot under the collar. Despite the contestations it should be noted that part of the problem with exams is with the open-ended questions which present a challenge to the markers. Additionally, there are markers who provide false information about their qualifications and experience.
Another complication is the School Based Assessment which makes up 25 percent of the final exam mark. This allocation has been extensively manipulated by some schools and to a large extent, has brought on sharply the debates of reliability and validity around the matric exams.
For those who struggled with mathematics during their schooling or did not do mathematics at all, this argument of offering mathematics as compulsory for all schools does not seem to hold any merit. There is a sentiment that seems to be exaggerated by these adults who either failed mathematics or struggled with it. It is even worse when some teachers make mathematics out to be one of those life-threatening experiences.
Just to put things into perspective, there was a time in the old system when learners had the choice to not do mathematics or some of them opted for what used to be then called Standard Grade. Unfortunately most of the public schools took this seemingly easy option, to the detriment of leaners that were in the schooling system then.
Another factor is that a lot of international benchmarking tests either use mathematics or science to measure cognitive ability. South Africa has been found wanting in several of these tests. There is merit in a view that says mathematics is a life-long gift, though I might not have a science to prove my point, but knowledge in mathematics allows one to be logical in their reasoning, easily associate and differentiate issues and of course, the ability to count does come in handy along the way.
On a serious note, mathematics broadens one’s horizon for further study. It is a fact that you will not be accepted to pursue certain qualifications without it. However, one should emphasise that mathematics is not matric; children should be encouraged to start learning mathematics from lower grades.
There is merit in the argument that life orientation should not be a test subject in matric. There are those who even argue that life orientation is a waste of time. On the contrary, life orientation is important because it is about life skills, it is about values and norms, about civic education and citizenship education, it is about influencing behaviour so that learners can protect themselves against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, etc.
What seems to be holding water is the view that it should not be a test subject for matric. The problem is that the matric test is through a School Based Assessment and it was observed earlier that the integrity of the marking is questionable.
There is a worrying number of students who drop out of university in their first year and also quite a large number of those who do not finish their studies. The problem is partially through the schooling system that prepares leaners to pass matric; though they may lack the subject knowledge, due to the learning route imposed on them. Because of the excessive pressure placed on matric, learners prepare for matric examinations through question papers; they know the answer but lack the understanding on how the answer was derived.
However tougher university entrance requirements can also be abused by some of the universities who use ‘high standards’ to control the number of students who should be enrolled for a particular course. There is a need therefore for absolute transparency on how these tougher university entrance requirements are administered. Especially when it also requires learners to write entrance tests, whose credibility should be subject to scrutiny.
- Themba Mola is the chief operations officer of the Kagiso Trust.