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Debate: Lessons from class of 2013

Sunday Independent

Education experts give their take on the lessons learned from the matric class of 2013.

Stephen Taylor: Department is now looking at wholesale improvements in learning and teaching

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2014/01/07 Actor Coco Merckel (Centre),waited till the early hours for the release of the 2013 matric results,at a service station in Newclare,with his daughter Lungi.With them is Themba Moyo another matriculant who also waited for hours to check his results. Photo:Wesley Fester

The Matric class of 2013 performed unambiguously better than any previous year. The number of candidates was higher. The number of passes was higher. The pass rate was higher. The proportion and number achieving Bachelors passes were higher.

However, critics have raised questions about the many children who exit school without reaching grade 12, possibly because schools deliberately withhold weak students from the National Senior Certificate examinations.

In the Department of Basic Education, we share these very legitimate concerns and have been closely examining trends in the proportion of all children who successfully complete matric. This is not as easy to measure as the simple pass rate, but all available measures point to improvements in recent years.

First, comparing grade 1 enrolments to the number passing matric is significantly misleading. This is mainly because grade 1 enrolments are inflated due to high rates of repetition, partly owing to the participation of under-aged pupils. For example, there were 1 286 591 grade 1 pupils enrolled in 2002 (the year that most of the class of 2013 would have started school) but only 1 111 858 grade 2 enrolments in 2003.

This represents about 175 000 fewer enrolments. This is due to grade repetition and is not a result of drop-out, which is virtually zero at the end of grade 1.

As an aside, the extent of the inflation of grade 1 enrolments has been declining in recent years due to better compliance with age-of-entry norms and the expansion of the grade R programme.

Comparing grade 2 enrolments to matric passes is therefore somewhat more appropriate. However, this too is influenced to some extent by grade repetition. In fact, whichever grade one uses to calculate a type of “throughput rate”, grade repetition will mean that this statistic is lower than the true probability of a learner attaining matric.

This is because while grade repetition inflates the number enrolled in any particular grade, the number passing matric is not similarly inflated because virtually no people re-write matric having previously passed it. It is difficult to adjust for grade repetition in calculating a throughput rate due to the unreliability of repetition data, especially prior to 2009.

Mortality also affects the calculation although to a lesser extent. Mortality statistics from administrative records indicate that about 1000 learners die per grade per year. Therefore, this would inflate the baseline number of grade 2 enrolments by about 11 000.

The ratio of matric passes of last year to grade 2 enrolments in 2003 is 40.4 percent. This is probably an underestimate by about 3 percentage points due to repetition, mortality and the fact that supplementary NSC candidates are not yet included.

Importantly, this grade 2-to-matric throughput rate has increased steadily in the last few years from 28 percent in 2009, to 34.2 percent in 2010, 37.7 percent in 2011, 38.2 percent in 2012 and now 40.4 percent last year. To some extent, this trend is exaggerated by the fact that grade repetition in grade 2 has been declining.

Another more stable and meaningful measure of the probability of attaining a matric can be calculated using household survey data. This makes it possible to look at a specific age-cohort of the population, say 24-year-olds, and see what proportion of them has matric.

Such calculations using Stats SA household survey data confirm that just over 40 percent of youths end up passing matric. This represents a secondary school completion rate that is still rather low relative to comparable developing countries, such as Turkey (53 percent) and Brazil (67 percent).

But encouragingly, these household surveys indicate a moderately positive trend in the attainment of matric since 2002, in particular among females.

A long-term view of the numbers of matric passes each year is telling. Only 43 000 people passed matric in 1970. In 1990 there were 191 000 passes. By 2000 the number had risen to 283 294.

Now, last year there were 439 779 matric passes. Over the same period population growth has been moderate. For example, between 2000 and 2012 the population of 18-year-olds grew by about 0.4 percent a year.

Despite these clearly improving trends there are still too many youths who do not reach matric and consequently lack any qualification that is well recognised in the labour market. There are two main solutions to this challenge.

First, we need to keep increasing the proportion of youths that do attain matric – but crucially, this must be achieved through improving the quality of learning in earlier grades.

The high rates of dropout in grades 10 and 11 are really symptomatic of the learning deficits that children accumulate in earlier grades.

Although factors such as financial constraints, gang involvement and family commitments play a role in dropout, the major cause of dropout is weak learning foundations.

For this reason, the Department of Basic Education is increasingly prioritising interventions to improve the acquisition of foundational numeracy and literacy, especially reading acquisition.

The Annual National Assessments represent one key intervention aimed at strengthening the academic emphasis within primary schools.

A second part of the solution is to develop meaningful educational alternatives for those who will not achieve matric. The increasing policy focus on FET colleges, learnerships and apprenticeships, as evident in the National Development Plan for example, is therefore an important development.

The forthcoming implementation of the new Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements for Technical Schools is another example of the prioritisation of technical education.

Given the strong emphasis South Africans have traditionally placed on matric, it will be necessary to raise the profile of such alternatives in the public consciousness.

The Department of Basic Education remains committed to improving the prospects for our youth to achieve educational success.

We also understand that there cannot be any short cuts to producing more matric graduates – this must happen through improving the quality of teaching and learning throughout the school system.

Taylor is an official in the office of the DG of Basic Education.

Mary Metcalfe: Improved results and matric success diminished by high number of drop-outs

The jubilation at the highest matric pass rate yet in public schooling of 78.2 percent is justified. The celebration is an acknowledgement of the hard work of many committed teachers, officials and learners.

The Department of Basic Education is on its way to achieving some of the targets it has set itself in its Action Plan 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025 – with some warning signs and formidable challenges.

The proportion of children eligible to apply for admission to a degree programme is now more than 30 percent, and this year’s target of 175 000 “Bachelor” entry passes seems achievable.

But progress towards achievement in the provincial targets that comprise the national total is uneven.

Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape have already surpassed their 2014 targets, while the Free State, Northern Cape and, more markedly, the Eastern Cape are making slow progress.

Achievement of the national goal requires achievement of the goal set in each province – over-achievement in one province cannot compensate for failure in another.

The pattern of improvement does not suggest the national targets set for the number of passes in maths and physical science this year will be achieved.

In particular, it seems unlikely that the Eastern Cape will achieve its targets.

It may be that these need to be reviewed, but the targets are modest in terms of our development needs: we need more than the 25 percent of candidates who wrote matric and achieved a 30 percent pass in maths last year.

Inequality remains high. In the 27 percent of schools across the country serving the poorest communities (Quintile 1), only 13 percent of pupils received “Bachelor”-level passes, and only 38 percent of these schools had pass rates of between 80 and 100 percent.

In the 12 percent of public schools serving the wealthiest communities (Quintile 5), 34 percent of pupils achieved a “Bachelor” pass, and 84 percent of these schools had pass rates between 80 and 100 percent.

Exclusion is the most critical challenge the department must address.

The value of the matric pass rate is diminished by the large number of children who leave school before writing matric, and the national “retention rate” should be given as much prominence as the “pass rate”.

These “drop-outs” are invisible in the results and in our celebrations. Estimating the proportion who drop out by subtracting the number of pupils writing matric from the number of children 12 years earlier ignores our high levels of failure and repetition and forgets that many of the original Grade 1 cohorts take many years to progress through the system.

A Grade 12 matric cohort is comprised of many pupils who have been in the system for many more than 12 years.

As many as 40 percent of pupils have repeated at least one grade by Grade 6 (higher than the southern African regional average of 29 percent), and 9 percent of pupils in grades 10 to 12 have repeated a grade three times or more.

Unlike other countries on the subcontinent, before the age of 16 our pupils may fail and repeat, but they do not drop out and the department is justifiably proud of our 90 percent level of educational participation.

However, after the age of 16, the picture changes drastically. Last year, the department published a report that shows that the drop-out rate is worse than previously understood: “Nearly 60 percent of youths left with no qualification beyond the Grade 9 level.”

The report’s “best estimate” is that the proportion of an age cohort passing matric is only about 40 percent.

A 78 percent matric pass rate with a 60 percent prior drop-out rate is a hollow success.

The challenge is to improve quality and retention at the same time. In the next term of government, the Policy and Monitoring Evaluation Unit in the Presidency should include retention targets for provinces, and schools should be encouraged to emblazon their successes not only as a “100 percent pass”, but give their retention rate equal prominence.

A simultaneous focus on pass rates and retention would reduce the temptation for provinces and schools to compete to be the highest-performing at the expense of retention.

Retention matters profoundly for building positive participation in society. Retaining more pupils to a credible exit point increases skill levels for economic development.

It increases the number of young people with a sense of belonging, participation and inclusion, which must be a pressing social goal. The system must nurture all pupils, creating opportunities for real and perceived personal success and possibilities of future economic and civic participation.

There are no silver-bullet solutions. The devastating drop-out rate from Grade 10 is rooted in poor learning achievement and high levels of failure from the first years of primary school.

The department’s Annual National Assessments now provide information on learning progress much earlier than Grade 12. Last year only 49 percent of Grade 5 pupils nationally were performing satisfactorily in language, and only 33 percent in maths.

The quality deficits have a cumulative impact: last year’s performance of Grade 9s in language (for the majority for whom the language was not their home language) was 33 percent, with only 14 percent achieving satisfactorily in maths.

Pupils may sit socially and emotionally uncomfortably in classes where they are several years older than the norm. Repetition creates inefficiencies requiring more resources than if higher proportions of children succeed.

We must maintain the matric pass rate celebrated this week, but uncompromisingly take steps to retain more learners in the system and bring them to a successful point of exit.

This may require structural changes to the qualification framework to allow more diverse exit points, but the more important challenge is to provide the support to the leadership of schools, and to teachers in particular, that equips them for the complex work they must do to improve learning and reduce our debilitating systemic levels of failure and drop-out.

Metcalfe is visiting professor at the Wits University School of School of Public and Development Management.

Suellen Shay: Time for matriculants to handle next chapter in their education

The reality in South Africa today is that, roughly speaking, a student who enrolls for a three-year Bachelor’s degree has a one-in-four chance of dropping out by the end of first year. If she survives beyond first year she has less than a one-in-three chance of graduating in the three-year minimum time.

Half of our enrolled students will never graduate at all. Most severely affected by this “revolving door” are South Africa’s African and coloured youth of whom only 5 percent are succeeding in higher education.

Whether you are a potential student, a parent, or a taxpayer, this should be a cause for concern, if not alarm. The Centre for Higher Education Development’s proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform calls this “systemic failure”. Our higher education system is failing the majority of the youth in this country.

Systemic failure calls for systemic solutions and this is what the CHE proposal sets out to address. Some critics might be quick to decry, aren’t poor completion rates a global higher education phenomenon? Surely, this problem is not unique to South Africa. True, our problems are not unique but they are acute, exacerbated by a low participation rate.

Our poor completion rates are against the backdrop of a low participation rate. In contrast to participation rates of 50-60 percent in developed countries, only 18 percent of our university age cohort are enrolled in high education. Low participation-low completion is a double blow and means that higher education is unable to produce the number and quality of graduates necessary for a socially and economically vibrant society.

More convincingly than ever the CHE proposal lays out the depth of our problem – it holds up a mirror to the system and what we see “ain’t pretty”. In my own institution – which did not support the proposal – we agree that we have a problem. Those voices arguing that the problem lies elsewhere (e.g. in schooling or FET) were in the minority and were paid very little attention.

So we have a problem. We get better and better in South African at analysing our education policy problems, most recently the Green Paper for Post-School Education and Training did this well.

We’ve been poor on proposing solutions. We leap from the description of the problem to the desired outcomes but no indication of how we will get from the problem to the outcomes.

The CHE proposal does not fall in this trap – not only is a clear solution offered but research was commissioned to provide examples of what this solution would look like in different contexts.

So what’s the proposed solution? The reality as noted above is that the majority of our students are taking longer than three years to complete their degree.

They do this largely because of failure. You fail a course, you repeat the course.

Once you have failed more than one or two courses you will take longer to graduate. Students fail and degrees are extended for many reasons – finances, hardship or personal choice.

Not all of these are under our control, but what if we could offer a curriculum which aimed to minimise the academic failure? We have nearly 30 years of experience in South Africa of academic development programmes (or extended curricula) which have been doing exactly that.

One of the limitations of these programmes is that this structured and supportive curricula has only been available to about 15 percent of students.

Academic development programmes, as we know them, will not solve the problems of the scale described above though we have much to learn from them.

The task team proposes the introduction of an extended and flexible curriculum structure for undergraduate education in South Africa.

In short, the proposal argues that all current three-year degrees and diplomas, as well as four-year Bachelor’s degrees be extended by one year with an additional 120 credits. In this way, a four-year degree or diploma becomes the norm.

For those students who do not require four years to achieve the required exit standards (and the data shows that this is a minority), they can accelerate and complete their degree in three years. Exemption on the basis of prior learning is common practice in higher education systems around the world. Hence, the notion of a “flexible” curriculum.

What does this mean? What are the key principles? First, the exit standards of the existing degree or diploma remain the same. This is not a “dumbing down” of the quality of education.

Nor is it a “ratcheting up” to include Honours level work. Nor do those students who accelerate in a shorter period have a better degree. The exit standards remain the same.

Second, a four-year curriculum is an opportunity to better align, better articulate between school leaver achievement and university readiness.

We know there’s a gap – a widening gap some would argue.

The four-year curriculum faces this gap head-on. How does this four-year curriculum do this?

Critics of the proposal in my own institution – and more widely – have argued that simply adding another year is “kicking the can further down the road”. In other words, a four-year degree means that students will simply take even longer – an even greater waste of resources.

They are absolutely correct. But this reveals a profound misunderstanding of the curriculum reform that the proposal calls for.

If the flexible degree is simply the existing three-degree spread over four years this will indeed solve nothing.

The flexible degree enables curriculum space (an extra 120 credits) for “foundational provision” where foundational provision is spread, perhaps rather thickly in first year but threads its way through years two, three and four with particular provision for those “killer courses”, courses which are notoriously difficult and present real bottlenecks for students. If this “foundational provision” “works” – and there are 30 years of educational development experience to draw on – fewer students fail, completion rates improve. It’s simple.

The third principle, is that not only is this affordable but that we will as a sector in the end save money. We currently waste nearly R5 billion per annum as a result of incomplete qualifications: a highly inefficient system.

The CHE proposal provides detailed scenario planning for how greater efficiency pays off. There are of course other resource concerns.

Given skills shortage in the academic sector, where will the staff come from to teach these additional courses? Where will staff come from to assist in curriculum reform? What will we do with all these students who are retained?

Where will we put them? These are not small issues.

But would they not be considered “good” problems if the trade-off was a healthier, more efficient higher education system?

The point is, if the proposal is politically, educationally and financially sound – and I argue it is – a range of implementation challenges have to be addressed. It is naïve to think it could be otherwise.

As the institutional and sectorial responses trickle in, it is too early to tell what the weight of opinion will be, much less the minister’s response. From the point of view of my own institution, what I can say is, to quote our registrar, it can no longer be business as usual. This is no small victory.

Shay is associate professor and dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development.

Sunday Independent

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