Author Graeme Bloch at the launch of his book. Pictute Jeffrey Abrahams

The matrics are doing okay.

We need to remind ourselves of this, as spin and counter-spin fly.

Of course, the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) results are brilliant, with almost 99 percent of kids passing.

We may well see an improvement on the matric results for all public schools when these are soon released.

So we need to congratulate those matriculants who did well. It is worth the paper it is written on. Hard work by all brings results. So if you did well, and well enough to get into university or further education and training college, well done. We adults must learn not to diss our kids.

I suspect they just get on with it, and ignore our taunts anyway. Why else, in the Eastern Cape – despite a disastrous year in which teachers and department were at war – can we expect young people to do better than in the past? Kids just want to do well.

Of course there are criticisms, and many. Our own annual national assessments (ANAs) show the difficulties of getting reading and maths right at foundation phase level. Only a third of kids can read or count properly. Of course, this gap reverberates right though the system. So there is much work to do still.

More than that, half of the kids don’t even make matric. So many are sitting on the streets, even before a good pass rate wakes us up. So a pass rate is of the half who made it. Put that in your pipe: only half made it to even write matric.

And before we get excited or gloomy about averages – why in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape are results similar to the Eastern Cape? Why do local kids struggle to get into UCT?

While the province does well, some areas show a definite dip. Only the former model Cs or the suburban schools pull results up. Gauteng and the Western Cape partly do okay with hands-on MECs; partly with a large number of suburban schools.

So we need to bear in mind the massive inequalities between schools.

The IEB results represent mainly private schools and less than 5 percent of black kids are here. The pass rates are pulled up by white kids – sorry to be racial, but if you are born on the right side of the tracks, you have a 100 percent chance of getting matric and a 60 percent chance of going on to university.

For the majority, it is about half who get matric and maybe 15 percent to 20 percent go on to tertiary.

The suburban schools are struggling. There is some money, but not endless bursaries. There is some place, but keeping standards and morale high is not easy. There are real cultural issues. People from all over want to get into the few good schools.

Of course, the inequality is material and visible. If you live in Mitchells Plain or Khayelitsha near the sea, forget about a swimming pool or learning to swim.

This is before we look at toilets, which certainly in the Eastern Cape are an utter disgrace (and probably elsewhere; I haven’t seen). Why do we teach kids to wash their hands when food and washing water are hard to come by?

There are virtually no libraries or labs in rural black schools. Language at home is a real issue – incidentally, once upon a time they said that English people could never do maths, which was largely in Greek, literally.

When we talk of inequality, young people remind us of disability. They wonder where we are coming from with all this race talk. So some people do brilliantly, despite it all. What this says is that history and circumstances are only one set of disadvantages, and clever kids and principals are everywhere and anywhere. Let us get a life, not rest on hope and a few brilliant laurels.

We need to talk more. Where are we, where do we want to go? We want brilliant results like the IEB. How? What is feasible? Who must do what? When? What are our education priorities? This is a conversation we forgot at liberation.

I think the department is right. We must focus on maths and literacy, very early; preferably encourage early childhood development. We need to be prescriptive with teachers despite the dangers. We don’t see the unions coming on board as they should. So it is up to us, as parents and community, to keep the pressure on schools and teachers. Not to blame, but to say what we want for our children.

There is improvement. Let us not forget this. The general averages are rising. NGOs are collaborating more; government admits the problems and puts in place the ANA tests to show where we are going wrong. Things are not worse than they used to be: in 1976, when I was banned, only a quarter of kids even got beyond primary school. Now we are in the era of mass education and a horrible globalised world.

So improvements count for little: Are we the best, is the only question? We may not be, but nor does it mean we are going backwards. Whether we like it or not, we are indeed close to the worst.

Schooling is only partly about academics. It is also about chess, about sport, about culture. It is mostly about caring. In South Africa, there is a lot to care for, and privilege is only for a very few.

So let us not give up. Let us not blame. Let us get excited when we must. Let us also be realistic. Realism calls on us to be active, to be involved, even just to create a study space, certainly to mobilise our employees.

And to encourage our young, to nurture them, to make them be the best they can be, wherever they are. We all have talents. Our country needs these to the max.

There is much to do. Our matric results remind us of two things. Firstly, we do have brilliant kids. Secondly, we cannot keep failing them with a lousy, unequal schooling system. Let us knuckle down and be there for our young people.

- Bloch is visiting adjunct professor, Wits school of Public and Development Management.