South African education still fails many 20 years after apartheid

Where is education going for South Africa’s ‘Born Frees’? teachandlearn, CC BY-NC-SA

Since the dawn of democracy in South Africa 20 years ago, pass rates in the country’s end-of-school exam – commonly known as the matric – have been steadily on the rise, despite indications that the schooling system is failing in many other respects.

Sceptics have indicated that it seems especially convenient that the 78.2% pass rate for Grade 12 students this year – an election year – exceeded the target of 75%. But Umalusi (the independent quality assurance body overseeing assessments in the schooling system) declared the 2013 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations to be fair and credible. And the indications are that the steadily increasing pass rate is not because examination papers are getting progressively easier.

Are standards improving?

It is important to be clear about exactly what is meant by “rising” pass rates. The rate is calculated by only those Grade 12 learners who actually sat the exams. Although the number has increased steadily over the years, data from the census has led to estimates that only 48% of students who begin Grade 1 actually complete Grade 12, with most learners dropping out of school in Grade 10 and 11.

Because of the hype associated with the pass rate, under-performing schools have every incentive to discourage weaker students from writing the examinations in order to improve their statistics.

Much has been said recently about whether the pass rate is so high because the mark needed to pass (30% in some subjects) is so low. No doubt this is true. But until 2009, South Africa had a two-tiered matriculation system, where learners could choose whether their exam would get them into university or not.

Now, Grade 12 learners in the public schooling system all write the same examinations with various classes of passes. The 30% pass rate is associated with the lowest possible pass – a school leavers certificate that does not lead to any further study opportunities.

The highest level of pass – called a NSC with a bachelor’s pass – supposedly enables learners to pursue a university degree. It requires that learners obtain 50% in at least four “designated” (more academically demanding) subjects. Only 30.6% of South African learners in public schools achieved a pass at this level in 2013.

Despite its name, many learners who possess the top pass are turned away from universities because they do not meet the minimum admission points for the degree programme in which they seek a place. It would be irresponsible to admit students who are not likely to succeed given the demands of the degree. Those in South Africa who call for a minimum pass mark of 50% are, in effect, calling for the NSC Bachelor’s Pass to become the yardstick by which the pass rate is measured.

Rise over time

To understand the current state of education in South Africa, we need to look at where it came from. With the demise of apartheid came the imperative to discard all tainted systems, including education. Outcomes-based education was introduced as the extreme opposite of “apartheid style” education. Instead of a focus on content, there was to be a focus on the students. Instead of rote learning, everyone was encouraged to express an opinion.

The problem is that the authority of knowledge was diminished – everyone’s opinion, regardless of the weight of evidence or reason, counted equally. Some of the training manuals used to introduce teachers to how to “do outcomes-based education” called for a democratic relationship between teacher and learners, where the teacher simply “facilitated” lessons and students shared what they thought about a topic.

In this kind of system, students barely move beyond what they already know. There’s also very little incentive to read – teachers were actively discouraged from using textbooks as sources of knowledge. It is sad reality that universities have to turn away many applicants who are outwardly confident, but leave school minimally literate.

But the growing discontent with poor literacy levels and poor knowledge of students who have passed through the outcomes-based education system over the past few years has resulted in numerous curriculum changes to strengthen the knowledge base of the curriculum and promote text-based learning.

Teachers are now more settled in the demands of the new curriculum which has been phased in over the past few years. They are strongly encouraged to use textbooks that have been written by subject-specialists and have been subject to an evaluation process. Textbook delivery has also improved, although there are still isolated instances of non-delivery.

Better teaching

Since 2002, newly qualified teachers have required a university degree in order to be licensed to teach in South African schools. This is a far cry from the three year certificate that was needed in order to qualify as a teacher for black African schools under the apartheid system.

There were some outstanding colleges of education (located in both rural and urban areas) that offered rigorous programmes and produced sought after, knowledgeable teachers. Unfortunately, there were also some that hardly extended teachers beyond what school learners needed to know.

It is perhaps somewhat understandable (albeit shocking) that recent research show that the strongest of South Africa’s Grade 6 learners achieve higher scores in standardised mathematics tests than the weakest of South Africa’s Grade 6 teachers.

Nearly all teachers in South Africa’s public schools now have four year qualifications, having either done a four-year initial teacher education qualification or completed a fourth year through an Advanced Certificate in Education.

Despite this massive effort, initial research has suggested that the additional teacher education has had little impact on how some teachers in the most marginalised of schools are teaching. Lack of teacher content knowledge remains a major obstacle facing the provision of quality education in South Africa, although this intervention may account for some improvement in the results.

Firefighting mode

There have been numerous initiatives to provide additional support to students who are writing their Grade 12 examinations. These have ranged from TV channels, collaborations between underperforming schools and universities such as the University of the Free State, NGOs such as READ Educational Trust, and private tuition for those who can afford it.

But quality basic teaching in every school should ideally preempt the need for such crisis intervention. Teachers, unions, teacher trainers, district officials and parents should not become reliant on such external interventions in order to improve the quality of education in South Africa.

While things are by no means perfect, there have been some important improvements. The infrastructure of many schools is still unacceptable, although learners in poor communities now get a free meal a day, and no longer have to learn on an empty stomach.

In spite of the much acclaimed 78.2% pass rate, recent government statistics showed that only 14% of Grade 9 learners are appropriately literate is alarming. Until we have a fully functioning schooling system where teachers, learners and parents prioritise learning, learning time and literacy through all grades, the demand for crisis management is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

In order to establish a system whereby quality learning is the norm in South African schools, all schools must prioritise reading, writing and understanding knowledge.