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Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has buckled under the pressure of unrelenting criticism of South Africa’s education system, and has launched a probe into the standard of the current matric pass benchmark, among other issues.
This week, Motshekga published a notice in the Government Gazette establishing a ministerial committee to carry out a study comparing pass requirements here with exit qualifications in several respected countries. Other matters that affect the quality of matric will also be investigated.
Matrics may apply to register for a bachelor degree as long as they get a 50 percent pass in four subjects and a 30 percent pass in the rest, provided they get 40 percent for their home language.
According to the notice in the Gazette, the committee will:
l Consult people, academic institutions and businesses to discuss their concerns over the current National Senior Certificate.
l Evaluate maths and maths literacy subjects to determine “whether this is the best option” to prepare pupils for “the workplace and higher education studies”.
l Look into the viability of offering “technical mathematics” related to technology subjects, and to determine whether maths literacy should not be “separated” from maths.
l Look at the “value add” of Life Orientation as a subject.
The move comes after warnings by leading academics that the standard of the National Senior Certificate was “deceptive, consigning thousands to a life that promised neither further education nor employment”. Earlier this year, prominent academic and struggle stalwart Dr Mamphela Ramphele lambasted the system as worse than the “gutter education” the youth of 1976 gave their lives to overthrow. She lashed out at the 30 percent pass mark, saying it degraded education standards.
This week the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa last in a survey of the quality of maths and science education in 62 countries.
A commission to investigate the pass rate in state schools was first proposed at the ANC policy conference in June.
Basic Education department spokeswoman Hope Mogatlhe said the minister’s probe was a response to criticism levelled at the standard of the matric pass benchmark. The committee would start work next year.
“There has been a lot of criticism around the 33 percent required to pass, with people saying it’s not a quality pass, so we’re asking ourselves perhaps it’s time to relook at things, and perhaps relook at that 33 percent,” she said.
The names of the committee members have not been announced, but according to the Gazette notice, they will include representatives from the national and provincial education departments, local and international experts, Umalusi, organised labour, and Higher Education SA.
News of the probe has been widely welcomed, with Matakanye Matakanye, general secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, saying they had long been concerned at the quality of South African education.
Paul Colditz, chief executive of the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA, said
, “It is always good to test yourself against the best in the world. When I wrote my matric, distinctions were extremely rare, and obtaining one was a cause for celebration. Maybe it’s just a generational issue, but it’s good if we’re concerned about our standards.”
Education analyst Professor Graeme Bloch said he did not think the senior certificate was worse than it used to be, but that the debate was necessary.
He warned that while a higher pass mark may “raise achievement and aspiration”, it would not solve the problems of quality. “What we need is a debate on what we want from education in South Africa.”
Eugene Daniels, an education specialist for Citizens Movement, a Section 21 company founded by Ramphele, urged the minister to review the entire education system.
South Africa was one of eight countries that required less than 50 percent to pass. But while it was focused strongly on university access, it should rather shift attention to “vocational” training to address high unemployment rates, he said.
Meanwhile at a two-day education summit in Bloemfontein, speakers such as the Rector of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen, and Professor Mary Metcalfe, educationist and former director general of higher education, backed the Methodist Bishop of SA, Bishop Zipho Siwa, who said of education: “This house is on fire”.
Jansen said his biggest fear was that the youth would give up on education as a whole and instead lean towards “get rich quick schemes”.