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It was pure political theatre. The excited room was filled with government officials, government consultants, quasi-government agencies, politicians and pupils from government schools.
As if on cue, the room rang with applause as one education victory after another was claimed. This was, after all, the annual drama in which the minister of basic education appears on stage to announce the Grade 12 National Senior Certificate (NSC) results.
The tension was high, and the main act knew that to simply release the magic number would spoil the occasion. And so the audience was led on an unnecessary tour of “government interventions” from assessment to curriculum with the simple objective of building towards a climax with the agreeable audience.
Then, in a move that would have made Fifa’s Sepp Blatter proud, the deputy minister leapt on to the stage with a huge envelope and, standing alongside his boss, a big card was slowly removed from the envelope. Only this time the announcement was not who will host the World Cup, it was a number, 70.2 percent, the national pass rate for the 2011 NSC exams.
For the first time officials leaked information ahead of time that the magical number would pass the 70 percent mark, since the 2010 pass mark was about 68 percent.
We even knew beforehand that the maths passing percentage would drop. But for the rest of the political spectacle one thing was consistent with every matric results announcement since democracy – the spin was upbeat and positive.
The next act in the political theatre was to put on display the top pupils from across the country. To the surprise of many, every top performer was a black male; this was unprecedented. The only white pupil who came tops in this scheme was a blind girl in the “special needs” category of schools.
What kind of choreography could deliver such a spectacular outcome in a racially unequal society? The stage hands decided, brilliantly, to take the top pupil in each quintile, the measure of poverty used to classify communities in which a school is located.
It so happens that in the top quintile where the well-endowed, and therefore former white schools are placed, the top pupil was a genius who achieved 100 percent in maths and physical science. What a show. The difference between playhouse theatre and political theatre, of course, is that you know the former is contrived.
The first deception has to do with this irritating problem of numbers. In 2000 about 1 035 192 pupils started school in Grade 1 but only 496 090 showed up to write the finals in the Grade 12 class of 2011.
In other words, 539 102 pupils disappeared from the system. What the Department of Basic Education will not tell us is where exactly more than half-a-million pupils disappeared to given this grossly inefficient and inequitable school system.
Even accounting for death, repetition, age cohort adjustment and outward migration, and assuming (wrongly, of course) that no new pupils entered the system over the 12-year period, the loss of 52.08 percent of children who started in Grade 1 is, quite frankly, a disgrace.
The Department of Basic Education obviously cannot answer these questions beyond laughable abstractions such as this release of political flatulence by its director-general: “The class of 2011 was smaller than the class of 2010, which shows that it’s a system searching for equilibrium.”
This is not new, for the signs have been there for some time with a gradual decline in the number of pupils enrolled for the Grade 12 exams (588 643 in 2008; 580 937 in 2009; 559 166 in 2010; and 511 038 in 2011).
In one year alone 41 443 fewer pupils wrote the 2011 Grade 12 exams than in 2010.
Then there is the discrepancy between the number of pupils who enrol for Grade 12 (511,038) and those who sit for the exams (496 090), using 2011 numbers.
There is a nasty micropolitics of schooling at play here. It is common knowledge that schools, under tremendous political pressure to improve their pass rates, do two things. They hold pupils back in earlier grades, especially Grade 11; and they downgrade pupils into easier subjects, such as maths literacy. In other words, the greater the chances of pupils in Grade 12 passing, the better the school looks, the better the province looks, the better the country’s averages look.
The origins of these pressures were most intensely felt when Kader Asmal was minister of education, when national pass averages shot up from the 40s to the 70s; but those pressures are still there, and many school principals in particular make the kinds of decisions that hold pupils back. The department itself acknowledges what it calls “culling,” and less than a year ago conceded that “there is no evidence that this practice has been completely eradicated”.
The second deception has to do with the meaning of the pass rate.
The level requirement for passing is so low that pupils really have to put in a special effort to fail. Recall that to pass the senior certificate examination in this country a pupil merely needs 40 percent in a home language, 40 percent in two other subjects, and 30 percent in three subjects.
What kind of self-respecting nation accepts this level of mediocrity in its national school system?
The third deception relates to the desperation to demonstrate racial parity in school performance, hence the quintile methodology to select top pupils. In principle, it is for me completely reasonable on academic, moral and psychological grounds to judge pupil performance in relation to the resource base of a school and the community.
But what such trickery conceals is that the top 100 pupils in every province remain overwhelmingly white and middle-class. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are white, but everything to do with the unpleasant reality that our political masters have failed to deal effectively with the legacy of education inequality; in fact, there is evidence that progress towards education equity has stagnated or even reversed in the poorest provinces.
The fourth deception is the pretence that the even modest improvement in national pass rates is as a result of what the government does.
I could list individuals, companies, non-government agencies, and community-based groups that drive the school-change initiatives in the provinces with considerable effects. Sometimes these local interventions are done in partnership with a province, but most times it is retired principals and teachers, small church-based initiatives or charities that work to ensure that high school pupils are motivated to do better and equipped with the skills to learn.
But as the curtain came down on an impressive piece of political theatre, the off-stage losers remain the poorest among our children.
l Jonathan Jansen is vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State.