Matric cheers, but still a long way to go
10 January 2011
Johannesburg: The matric results have, in some respects, become a barometer of how we are performing educationally as a nation. Like many, I greeted the news of the 7.2-percentage-point rise in the matric pass rate with a mixture of jubilation and disbelief. I had expected that the World Cup and the protracted public-sector strike would have a negative effect on the results of the class of 2010. It is wonderful to see that this has not been the case. So what can we learn from the class of 2010?
The disruptions of the World Cup and public-sector strike mobilised a variety of support programmes for matric pupils. The additional support came from the Department of Basic Education (DBE), the provincial departments of education, the media, NGOs, teachers, the private sector and ordinary members of the public.
The initiatives included self-study guides, winter schools, video lessons and help from tutors via Mxit. By all accounts, these initiatives had a positive effect, with successful matriculants claiming this week that the additional classes and study groups helped them enormously.
As educators, we need to evaluate these various support initiatives and find ways to measure their efficacy so that we can strengthen and develop those that worked well. We also need to identify those schools and pupils who struggled to access this support and find mechanisms to ensure that they can benefit from it in future.
But, most importantly, we need to harness and retain the energy and commitment generated in 2010 so that the "business unusual" that Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga referred to becomes part and parcel of the way we support our pupils. It would be especially wonderful if we could extend this kind of support to pupils in the lower grades as well. I believe this would substantially improve our results in the longer term.
The other observation that is important to make is that the class of 2010 is the third set of matriculants to write the new National Senior Certificate examinations. They have clearly benefited from the increased experience of both the examiners in setting appropriate examinations and the teachers in managing the teaching of the curriculums. Added to this, pupils had the benefit of being able to go through past examination papers as part of their preparation.
I believe this relative stability in the system has contributed to the success of the class of 2010. This suggests to me that any future changes should be implemented with careful consideration and possible small-scale piloting.
I raise this concern particularly in light of the fact that the draft Curriculum and Policy Statements (CAPS) released at the end of 2010 recommended some fairly substantial changes in subjects like mathematics. These are scheduled to be implemented in grade 10 in 2012. I am concerned that we are not fully aware of what the effect these changes might have on our education system. I also worry that we are not adequately prepared to meet the teacher development challenges they will bring.
Mathematics and physical science have been identified as key subjects for providing the skills needed for growth in South Africa and, worryingly, the pass rate in both subjects remains below 50%. The pass rate for maths did increase slightly from 45.9% in 2009 to 47.4% in 2010. But, unfortunately, pass rates paint a misleading picture in this case.
Both the number of NSC candidates writing the maths examination in 2010 and the number of learners passing maths were lower than those in 2009. This is cause for considerable concern. We have not only a low pass rate in maths, but also a declining number of pupils taking the subject.
If we look at the pass rate in some other key subjects, the picture looks a little rosier. For example, the pass rate in economics was 75.2%, in life science 74.6% and in accounting 62.8%. However, this is looking at a pass as scoring over 30%. If we look at the number of pupils scoring over 40%, the percentages drop to 46.3%, 51.7% and 35.3% respectively.
Pupils need to pass three subjects at the 30% level and three at the 40% level to get an NSC. These numbers suggest that a fairly large proportion of pupils might be passing the NSC while achieving in the 30-40% range for one, two or even three subjects. This type of pass is likely to leave the pupil with limited opportunities.
A matter of deep concern is apparent only if we divert our gaze from matric for a moment. The class of 2010 began as the grade one class of 1999, a class of over 1.3 million pupils. The fact that less than half of them made it to grade 12 in 2010 is something that needs our critical and urgent attention. It is heartening that the minister, in her announcement of the results, reiterated the importance her department attaches to researching, monitoring and promoting quality learning and teaching throughout the system.
Despite the pleasing improvements in the 2010 matric pass rate, we have a very long way to go before we have an education system that serves the needs of all our pupils equally well.
Research and experience is continually underscoring the need for teachers with good content knowledge, school leadership that is strong and effective, parental and community involvement and support, quality resources like textbooks and workbooks (and teachers trained in their use) and pupils who are motivated and committed. The success stories of matric 2010 show us that it is possible to bring all those factors together. The challenge remains to find ways to do so for all pupils in all areas and at all levels.
* Lynn Bowie is a lecturer in mathematics education at the Marang Centre for Mathematics and Science Education, Wits School of Education.
Keywords: education, South Africa