YARDSTICK: The writer is unconvinced that competition in respect of success at Grade 12 is appropriate when many are not benefiting meaningfully. The most important criterion is throughput -- what percentage conclude their schooling with a qualification.

JOHANNESBURG - The National Senior Certificate (NSC) pass rate and the performance of matric learners should not be a “competition” between provinces and between accredited assessment bodies. South Africa has a preoccupation with university study that is creating a distorted view of what education is about.

It’s a key reason for the undue pressure we experience when it comes to university entry and the funding of that system.

Writing matric should be the point where learners accept the challenge of a school-leaving and university-entrance exam. If all provinces scored a pass rate of 98 or 99percent in the NSC, would we be this obsessed with the fact that the pass rate of one was 98.5percent and another 98.6percent? I would think not.

It would indicate a system that is optimally functional.

There will always be the learner who is borderline or has a poor exam session because of health reasons or some tragedy at the time of writing matric.

However, pass rates for a senior school-leaving exam, wherever it is taken, should always be around 98 or 99percent.

Ideally, progression through the education system should be such that a learner only writes the NSC exam when they’re ready and hence there should be no failures at all. This would then make the notion of which entity “comes first in the country” with the highest pass rate a non-issue.

A high national pass rate would indicate that we are not wasting time in the lives of young people or taxpayers’ money by having Grade 12 learners face an exam they are not ready for. We would build the morale of teachers, who may well be sacrificing the holistic notion of education in order to get children to pass, often at the minimum level of 30 or 40percent.

Learners would have a sense of achievement by being fairly challenged by an exam designed for the level to which they have been prepared and stand a more than likely chance of success. Instead, the rivalry has become so fierce that educationists, correctly so, have questioned the validity of making comparisons on the basis of pass rates in the NSC alone.

Basket of criteria

By removing this pass-rate obsessed lens of competition, we can start to see the success of achievement with different eyes. That’s why a basket of criteria has now been introduced to replace this narrow focus. It includes factors such as participation in physical sciences and maths, the pass rate in maths and the attainment of passes that permit entry to bachelor degree study.

I am not convinced that competition in respect of success at Grade 12 is appropriate when so many learners are not benefiting meaningfully from our education system. The most important criterion in my opinion is the focus on throughput - what percentage of learners who enter Grade 1 conclude their schooling with the attainment of a NSC, or any other qualification for that matter.

That is the telling statistic. As NSC pass rates continue to improve, it would be far healthier for us to herald the success of our learners, wherever they come from, and accept that as far as academic education is concerned, we are beginning to deal with some of the systemic failings we have had in the past.

Let’s rather turn the energy with which we have tackled the improvement of the NSC pass rate to the critical issue of the throughput - and not just throughput in the NSC.

The value and importance of acquiring work skills as opposed to academic study in the form of degrees has been undermined in South Africa. There’s an absence of a focused information strategy that informs society that meaningful employment does not always require a university education.

In most countries considered to have successful education systems, there is enormous flexibility. There are respected alternate streams and qualifications available to learners so that specific talents and interests can be nurtured and successful learners can be respected in society.

In South Africa, there is an absence of meaningful alternate pathways to and within tertiary study. Employment in areas such as nursing, teaching, counselling, law and order, policing, child care and other important occupations are absorbed into university courses, when in fact they warrant stand-alone dedicated institutions that could broaden the road of tertiary study from its current single track pathway to university to accommodate a multi-lane highway to diverse institution types. This could be the first step to broaden society’s respect for professionals other than university graduates. As it stands, each year we lose thousands of young people with the potential to provide valuable skills, who do not require a university-based education, in our flailing economy.

Mass education

The pressures of mass academic education and the unsuitability of that mode of skills development for a substantial number of learners is a significant flaw in our education system, contributing significantly to the increase in the annual number of people who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs). A fact sheet released by the Department of Higher Education and Training notes that about 15 million people aged 15 to 64 were NEET in South Africa in 2016.

This translates into 40.3percent of this group. The state of NEETs in a country implies a stagnation or decline in human capital. Let’s concentrate on expanding opportunities for learners not only in mass schooling, but also in skills development and qualifications that address the needs of NEETs.

Anne Oberholzer is the chief executive of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.