Goodwood. 05 January 2012. Jubilant J,G, Meiring matriculants after they've received their matric results. Picture Ian Landsberg


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 leaped onto the stage with a huge envelope and, standing alongside his boss, slowly brought a big card into view.

Only this time the announcement was not Spain or South Africa - hosts of a soccer World Cup - it was a number: 70.2 percent, the national pass rate for the 2011 NSC examinations. The audience went delirious and, on Pavlovian cue, about a dozen embedded journalists jumped towards the stage with cameras flashing to capture the magic number.

Of course, none of this was unexpected.

For the first time, officials leaked information ahead of time that the magic number would pass the 70 percent mark, since the 2010 pass mark was around 68 percent. We even knew beforehand that the mathematics 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.

However, the drama was far from over.

The next act in the political theatre was to put on display the top student performers from across the country. To the surprise of many, every top performer was a black male. This was unprecedented. The only white student who came tops in this scheme was a blind “special needs” girl.

What kind of choreography could deliver such a spectacular outcome in a racially unequal society? The stage hands decided, brilliantly, to take the top student 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 student was a genius who achieved 100 percent in mathematics 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 the year 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 students 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 dep-artment 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 examinations (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 examinations than in 2010.

Then there is the discrepancy between the number of pupils who enrol for Grade 12 (511 038) and those who actually sit for the examinations (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 mathematical literacy over pure mathematics.

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 acknowledges what it calls “culling”.

The second deception has to do with the meaning of the pass rate.

The requirement for passing is so low in SA 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?

Consider the marks of one pupil who was informed by the provincial department of education that he passed well enough to pursue a degree at university.

All his marks are in the 50s, and for the critical subjects he obtains 32 percent in mathematics and 24 percent in physical science.

In this country, the young man is destined for university. No serious university will take this student into its first-year class and, if some do, he will undoubtedly fail miserably at huge cost.

The third deception relates to the desperation to demonstrate racial parity in performance, hence the quintile methodology.

What such trickery conceals, of course, is that the top 100 pupils in every province remain overwhelmingly white and middle-class, as the smiling faces in the regional newspapers confirmed this week.

This has got nothing to do with the fact that they are white, of course, 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.

The fourth deception is the pretence that even the modest improvement in pass rates is a result of what the government does.

This is completely misleading.

I could list many individuals, companies, NGOs, and community-based groups that drive the school-change initiatives in the provinces with considerable effect.

Most times it is retired principals and teachers, small church-based initiatives or charities that work to ensure high school students are motivated to do better and equipped with vital skills.

None of these actors were recognised in the staged performance.

Nothing demonstrates the systemic character of the schools crisis better than the mathematics results.

While a meaningless 99.6 percent of students passed life orientation, mathematics offers an unsentimental account of whether a pupil can think logically and systematically, reason, judge, calculate, compare, reflect and summarise. More than any other subject, it requires consistency, the knowledge of numbers learnt from Grade 1 and earlier.

Mathematics is, in my judgment, the gold standard for assessing the real meaning of the senior certificate results.

So what does the mathematics pass rate tell us?

That 46.3 percent of pupils passed mathematics. Bad enough? Take another look. The 104 033 students who passed include everyone with as low a mark as 30 percent and above. A far better determination would be the number who passed with a 50 percent mark.

By this measure, only 41 586 or 18.51 percent of pupils who wrote mathematics passed, which in turn is 8.38 percent of all pupils who sat for the NSC examinations; and the number that wrote mathematics is 40 000 fewer than those who wrote in 2010. - Saturday Argus