In order to be, education must become

12 November 2014 | Phillip Methula | Opinion

South Africa’s education system has a responsibility to equip learners with the skills necessary for them to cope and thrive in post-matric environments. Academic performance is not indicative of this, and should not form the only criteria by which the success of the education system is assessed.

Phillip Methula

Announcing the 2009 matric results, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshega, remarked with despair:

“The national pass rate of the National Senior Certificate examinations for 2009 is 60.7%. This means that there is a slight decline in the pass rate from 2008 of 2% across the country. I wish to state directly that even though this shift is marginal, I am most unhappy with the decline in the national pass rate and indeed in the overall pass rate of just over 60%. The National Senior Certificate is an important indicator of the quality of our education system, and as a country we cannot afford to allow our young people to achieve results that are in the main average or below average.”

Needless to say, there was a corresponding public outcry denouncing the dismal performance of the country’s education system. The system was perceived as failing the country’s children and consigning them into a bleak future with no prospects of growth and development.

The Minister’s tone in 2009 was a sharp contrast to her ebullient effervescence four years later when she announced the results of the 2013 matric class. With a national pass rate of a record 78.2% for the 2013 National Senior Certificate candidates, she said: “I congratulate the class of 2013 for being the best class since the advent of democracy, and encourage every learner to go further than their predecessors and strive to excel in higher education, the workplace and in your general contributions as South African citizens.”

Her excitement at the consistent improvement of the National Senior Certificate results was understandable. She knew that the voices of her critics would be significantly muted: the improving matric results demonstrated that the school system had taken strides in the right direction.

The Department of Basic Education’s preoccupation with the academic performance of learners, as measured by the Annual National Assessments at primary school level and the National Senior Certificate results at secondary level, is understandable given that learner achievement is used by the public as a key performance measure of the country’s education system. Despite the apparent increase in the number of grade 12 candidates who pass their final examinations, complaints and concerns about the quality of matric candidates continue unabated.

Higher education and further education and training institutions often bemoan the failure of the school system to equip learners with the requisite skills to enable them to cope with the rigorous demands of post-matric learning and development environments. While it is generally acknowledged that there are many other factors affecting the success rate of students in post-matric institutions, one can nevertheless surmise that one of the factors accounting for the low throughput rates of students completing their tertiary studies is the school system’s failure to prepare learners properly. The same chorus of complaints is also heard from the quarters of employers, who claim that learners from the school system do not have the basic communication and critical thinking skills required to thrive in a work environment. It is clear that the public school system is not able to produce well-rounded learners with all the necessary skills to cope with challenges once they leave school.

The Department of Basic Education’s preoccupation with learner performance has inadvertently forced underground other equally important aspects of learner development that schools should be concerned about. This has completely distorted the notion of what education is. Education is not only about learners’ academic excellence (although this is arguably one of its more critical responsibilities). It is also about developing learners’ critical thinking skills, improving their psychosocial resilience quotient to enable them to deal with their daily social and emotional challenges, helping them to discover and nurture their talents, and assisting them to develop effective communication skills – and more.

The holistic development of learners does not happen, and will not happen, as an automatic by-product of their academic performance. Addressing all aspects of learners’ development needs is a goal that should be deliberately pursued, with specific activities purposefully designed by schools to accomplish this objective. It is not something that will happen by accident.

While not relenting on their efforts to keep improving learner achievement in the school system, it is also imperative for schools to realise that they should widen the focus of what they do with their learners. They need to address all the development aspects of their learners. Without doing so, the current parochial focus on learner results will remain, as will the detrimental effects of poor learner development beyond their exit from the formal school system.

It is also doubtful whether one can confidently call this one-sided focus on learners’ academic excellence education. Surely education is more than that and there is no time other than now to start making education become education? In order to be, education must become.