Life after matric not a bed of roses for many

22 April 2014 | Phillip Methula | Insight

With the hype, excitement and furore around the matric results slowly dying down, thousands of matriculants around the country are bracing themselves for the next set of challenges in their journey of growth: finding study opportunities in tertiary education institutions.

They are soon to find out that their 12 years of difficult schooling was only a dress rehearsal for the nightmare of getting a place to further their studies. One of the inevitable corollaries of the high percentage pass in matric, is the resultant stiff competition for spaces for further studies in institutions of higher learning.

The competition has become even steeper as a result of the accumulation of the numbers of students from successive cohorts of matriculants making the grade over the years. There are simply not enough spaces in higher education institutions to accommodate all aspirant young people looking for development opportunities.

It is at this point that the issue of merit is brought in to decide who gets in and who remains outside. But then the big question arises: who are the winners and who are the losers when merit is applied?

On New Year’s Eve the IEB results for independent schools were released. The independent schools recorded a 98.56% pass rate from the 2013 cohort of 10 166 full-time and part-time matric learners. Eighty-five percent of them achieved the equivalent of bachelor passes.

These are learners whose parents pay incredibly large sums of money in school fees to ensure that their children get quality education. Not only are these children in schools boasting world-class facilities, but they also have teachers who are committed to developing them to reach their full potential.

It is no miracle that these children do so well in their academic achievement. With such good passes coupled with the popularly held view that independent schools provide good-quality education, these matriculants will have virtually no competition when vying for study opportunities against the majority of their counterparts in the public school system.

The public school system is not an unrelieved chapter of doom and gloom, though. There are public schools that produce academic excellence, but they are few and mostly confined to the upper quintiles of the school system. These are schools that are relatively well off compared to their township or rural counterparts, and often cater for the children of the well-heeled and middle class.

Apart from good physical resources and facilities, these public schools have effective managers, dedicated educators and very supportive parents. The good passes that they consistently achieve year in and year out comes is not a flash in the pan.

Although the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, argued on the occasion of the official announcement of the latest National Senior Certificate results that there has been a marked increase in the number of children from poor communities obtaining admission to bachelor studies, the big question is whether the quality of their passes put them on the same competitive footing as children from independent schools or the high-achieving public schools.

The answer is obviously no. Although there are exceptional achievers that have emerged from some of the low-quintile schools, they are exceptions among the majority of their peers, who come nowhere closer to their achievements. If these matriculants were competing for employment opportunities, do we even need to guess who would come up trumps?

There is one sober reality that we all have to wake up to, and not keep ignoring it, as we always tend to do. We keep deceiving ourselves that we live in a South Africa of equal opportunities now that the spectre of the apartheid regime is dead. We keep preaching, telling our young that with hard work, they can do or be anything.

We conveniently choose to be oblivious to the fact that the odds of the education system of our country are heavily stacked against the children of the poor. They have a limited chance get onto the high-speed train of success in which children of the rich and the middle class – and probably their children’s children – are born, reproduced and recycled. The fortunate maintain their advantage, while the poor never manage to break out of the cycle of poverty.

However, programmes aimed at enhancing the academic performance of children over and above what they are offered by their schools, if properly delivered, do make a big difference in learner achievement. They don’t eliminate the learning backlogs but they could give learners a little edge, to be on par with the rest of the best. This can only mean that those providing support to education should ensure that the assistance is consciously and deliberately used to back the losing horses.