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, says the writer. File picture: Oupa Mokoena

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 pre-occupation 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 99% in the NSC, would we be this obsessed with the fact that the pass rate of one was 98.5% and another 98.6%?  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 examination, wherever it is taken, should always be around 98 or 99%.  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 40%.  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.

Swap over to a big-picture lens

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 Mathematics, the pass rate in Mathematics 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 benefitting meaningfully from our education system.  The most important criterion in my opinion is the focus on throughput - what percentage of students 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 focussed information strategy that informs society that meaningful employment does not necessarily 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 critically  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-laned highway of 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, that do not require a university-based education, in our flailing economy. 

Mass academic education is flawed

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 persons who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs).   A fact sheet released by the Department of Higher Education and Training notes that approximately 15 million persons aged 15-64 were NEET in South Africa in 2016. This translates into 40.3% 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 which address the needs of NEETs. It is essential to bring citizens back into our society and direct them to find themselves in meaningful study and skills development programmes.  In this way education and training supports the establishment of a proud citizenry that is appropriately equipped with the skills and knowledge we need to create the vibrant, innovative and exciting economy we need in our country.

It all has to start somewhere. However I don’t think a matric pass-rate comparison is the healthy beginning we need.

* Oberholzer is the CEO of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB)

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