04 March 2014 | Margie Keeton | Insight
Each year in early January, the matric results attract banner headlines in the country’s newspapers. Government spin doctors emphasise the positive achievements, and the gainsayers point to areas of weakness.
The 2013 cohort of Grade 12 learners produced the best results since the National Senior Certificate (NSC) was introduced six years ago. Much has been made of the improved pass rate (up from 73.9% to 78.2%), as well as the increased proportion and number of learners gaining Bachelor degree passes (up from 26.6% to 30.4%). This is all most encouraging.
The province making the biggest moves
The stand-out province is now KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) – the biggest in terms of learner numbers, and one of the poorest provinces.
Quietly, behind the scenes, the KZN Education Department has been putting in place a set of programmes and interventions that have enabled the province to register significant gains. Building on these foundations, KZN has now become the engine room driving matric performance gains for the whole country.
One-quarter of all learners come from KZN. Last year the national number of Bachelor level passes went up 26% – one-third of this came from this one province. In addition, 40% of the increase in national Mathematics passes, and most impressively of all, 55% of the increase in Physical Science passes, were produced in KZN.
The province beat Gauteng and the Western Cape in producing the largest number of Bachelor passes. KZN’s size is at last beginning to tell positively.
This is timely, as the performance of the stronger provinces is showing signs of having plateaued and the pace of progress is much slower in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. With by far the biggest year-on-year improvements in overall passes (up 21%) and Bachelor level passes (up 36%), KZN is on a sharp trajectory and gaining momentum. In quality terms it is still a way off the stronger provinces (Gauteng, the Western Cape, the Free State and North West), but is narrowing the gap, especially in the middle and upper ranges of performances.
The province holding things back
This rosy picture is sadly not repeated in the Eastern Cape, where progress has been sluggish at best, acting as a significant brake on future national improvements. The 12 worst-performing school districts are all in the Eastern Cape. No Eastern Cape district came close to registering an 80% pass rate, a measure which all the districts in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Free State achieved.
The Eastern Cape also has the largest proportion of schools that are very weak (less than 20% pass rate), weak (below 40%) or struggling (below 60%). It had more than double KZN’s proportions in each of these categories. Only the tiny Northern Cape, which the Eastern Cape dwarfs in every other measure, has fewer schools in absolute terms in the top performance bracket (80% pass and above).
The Eastern Cape’s laggard status is also evident in its performance relative to the other provinces in key subjects – it is second-last in Accounting, Business Studies, History and Life Sciences, and last in Economics, Geography, Maths Literacy, Mathematics (by a staggering 10 percentage points) and Physical Science.
What is happening in maths?
The national Department of Basic Education has singled out maths as a key to its quality improvement drive, and this is registering results. The number of candidates writing matric has been fluctuating over recent years, but showed a 10% increase in 2013 compared with 2012. This uptick represents improved throughput of learners from Grades 10 and 11, and is a welcome development. As a result the cohort doing Mathematics is larger than it has been previously, even though more learners are enrolling for Maths Literacy. This is no bad thing, as it improves the overall chances of students in schools in which Mathematics teaching is weak.
There were continuing gains in the Mathematics pass rate, both at the 30% and 40% levels. Almost 60% of those taking Mathematics now pass and three provinces recorded pass rates over 70%. The Eastern Cape continues to lag 10 percentage points behind KZN, whose results surge is evident in this field as well.
Significantly, the provinces with the strongest maths performances are those with the lowest maths enrolments. KZN, and in particular the Eastern Cape, handicap their learners’ prospects by persisting in pushing half their Grade 12s into the maths pipeline where their chances of passing are low.
There are two major concerns with Mathematics. The first is that at the upper end of the performance curve, the curve is shifting slowly and beginning to resemble something more like the traditional bell curve, but there is still a sharp drop-off at the 50% mark.
Secondly, while the proportions have shifted slightly, more than half of the learners doing Mathematics are stuck in a low-performing band, scoring between 20% and 50% in their final exams. Only 38 000 learners, fewer than one in four of all who received Bachelor passes, made the 50% mark in Mathematics. This places serious constraints on SA’s ability to produce graduates to fill high-level technical jobs.
The performance graph also shows a stubborn block of very weak students. The 30% pass mark is often criticised in the media as being “too easy”. In fact, the opposite is true. For a quarter or more of those attempting maths, scoring 30% represents an unreachable goal.
There is a huge obstacle to their progress in the harsh reality (echoed by the department’s own experts) that many learners have not mastered even the basics of maths by the time they reach Grade 12. Elementary processing skills in algebra, trigonometry, geometry and statistics are quite foreign to them. For this group, wild guessing is often their only recourse in the examination hall.
In the Eastern Cape (and to a lesser extent KZN) large swathes of the province’s schools, if judged by their maths results, are effectively unable to teach the subject. Last year, Grade 9s tested nationally on their numeracy ability achieved the shocking national average of 13%. This is proof, if we still need it, of the dismal levels of maths ignorance in the classes moving into and through high school.
Breakthroughs for learners trapped at the tail end of the performance curve should not be expected soon. Indeed, with the reinclusion for the first time in seven years of euclidean geometry in the matric curriculum for 2014, we are likely to see many of the recent gains in maths reversed. Moving the bulk of learners bunching between 20% and 50% in maths further up the curve represents a serious challenge, and is where energies should be focused next.
So, yes, the schooling system is producing improved output, but questions remain about the kind of future for which our schools are preparing the country’s youth. In August 2013 the Council for Higher Education (CHE) reported on what has been happening to young people who exit schooling, even with top-end passes.
The findings are grim – over half the students admitted to first-year university study never graduate. Moreover, schooling in a democratic South Africa has done little to break racial barriers to success: fewer than 5% of African and coloured youth succeed in higher education. Prospects for jobs for young people are just as poor – employers (under pressure from trade unions) have an aversion to employing school leavers, with the result that a matric certificate makes no real difference in the job stakes.
The country’s learners are doing better, but the big question is whether the gains made are sustainable. The 2013 matric results suggest that bar one, the country’s provinces are getting the basics right. There has been consolidation across the board, with improved routines and management systems bringing results. How much more can be squeezed out of the system by administrative efficiency alone?
New approaches are required to eliminate stubborn obstacles to further progress. The first is the need to “fix” the Eastern Cape. Putting the province under temporary national administration did not seem to achieve much. Breaking the current lock hold on Eastern Cape schools of self-interest, corruption, and neglect requires more drastic interventions. Without determined political action, the Eastern Cape is going to become an increasing drag on schooling nationally.
The second challenge is accelerating the drive up the performance curve for quality learning outcomes – in maths and science and all the gateway subjects for higher education. The Department of Basic Education has set brave goals, but given current realities significant quality gains are unlikely in the short term.
In a bureaucratically driven system, with an ageing, shrinking and inadequately skilled teaching corps; disempowered parents; and little budgetary room for capital investments to spur innovation, more of the same seems our best scenario.