2019 Matric students from Curtis Nkondo School of Specialisation jumping in excitement after being named one of the best performing schools in Soweto. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency(ANA)
Somewhere in the welcome news that the Class of 2019 did the country proud with an overwhelming 81.3% pass lies hidden the sad news of those children who did not stay in the schooling system long enough to finish the journey started in Grade 1 in 2008.

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, who announced the results on Tuesday evening says: “The Class of 2019 is the twelfth cohort of learners to sit for the National Senior Certificate (NSC), and the sixth cohort to be exposed to the CAPS curriculum.

“Most poignantly, 84.6% of the Class of 2019 were part of 87.7% six-year-olds who were in Grade R in 2007, and entered Grade 1 in 2008 - the same year the NSC was introduced.”

It warmed the minister’s heart to know that “South Africans continue to send about 96% of about 12.8 million of the country’s children to our public schools”.

Based on Motshekga’s figures, it is worrying that about 15.4% of those who should have sat for the NSC examinations were unaccounted for.

Professor of Philosophy of Education, Moeketsi Letseka, who is also the Unesco Chair on Open Distance Learning at the University of South Africa (UNISA) says: “The 2016 Education Statistics in South Africa, as an example, indicates there was a total of 4323 533 pupils in the Foundation Phase.

“At the intermediate phase, the number had declined to 3099 817. At Grade 9, the number had dwindled to 905066. Even this number got reduced to around 600000 by the time the students sat for the matric examination.

“The question, where do the others end up, remains critical to the national human resources development project.

“The fact of the matter is this missing 15.4% to which you refer constitutes the group commonly referred to as the NEETs (people not in education, not in employment, not in training).

“As far back as 2011, the rate of NEETs in SA has been in and around 40%.”

Professor Letseka, who is also editor-in-chief of the Africa Education Review, says it is a cause for concern that this “missing” cohort of learners exists.

“As I explain, the NEETs are unemployed youth who are not studying or improving their capabilities to be economically active individuals.

“This is the potential for a critical social crisis any country can ill-afford.” Asked if there was a way to reduce the number of learners who do not reach Matric, Professor Letseka says: “In the Mail & Guardian of July 7-13, 2017, I wrote a commentary piece titled Success needs a solid foundation in which I underscored the importance of a robust early childhood development (ECD) programme to support a sustainable primary education, which would, in turn, serve as a pipeline to secondary education.

“In another article that also appeared in the Mail & Guardian on December 5, 2013, titled, Assessment results don’t make sense, Stellenbosch University economist Nick Spaull wrote that ‘Existing research in South Africa points to the fact that children are not acquiring the foundational numeracy and literacy skills in primary school and that this is the cause for under-performance in higher grades.’

“The 2011 pre-Progress in International Reading Study, for example, found that 29% of South African Grade 4 students could not ‘locate and retrieve an explicitly stated detail’ - that is, they were completely illiterate”.

Those who stayed in the system were not necessarily the best of the crop. Minister Motshekga boasted that “in 2019, a total of 156 884 distinctions were achieved”.

Professor Letseka is not overly excited about the quality of the passes. He says: “In a recent article titled Educational imbalances: quantity of passes is increasing, but the quality of those passes lags far behind, that appeared in The Star of January 9, 2020, Professor Lindelani Mnguni, School Director in the College of Education, Unisa ,made the following remark: “When we walk into lecture rooms, one of the questions we often ask is: what did these students learn in schools? In fact, colleagues will agree that these are cases where pupils obtain high marks in school subjects but fail to demonstrate the relevant knowledge at university”.

Professor Letseka says: “These arguments point to a systemic and increment failure by the DBE to mount a back to basics campaign.”