201110 Students writing their matric exams at the Sena-Marena High School in Soweto. As the grade 12 national senior certificate exams enters its fifth week, concerns that the standards of exam papers have dropped have been raised. . 140910. picture: Chris Collingridge 637

KwaZulu-Natal - Last month 125 Grade 10 pupils at a school in Zululand took up their pens for the mid-year physical science exam paper. No one passed.

Khanyanjalo Secondary School was just one of 11 schools in the area which recorded a 100 percent failure.

It is a picture replicated across the province – pupils in their tens of thousands at more than 600 of KZN’s poorest performing schools are unable to demonstrate an understanding of half a year of learning.

Educationists have described the statistics as “dismal”, warning that it spells trouble for the matric class of 2014.

But KZN Education Department spokesman Muzi Mahlambi said the Grade 12 June exam results were “noticeably better” by comparison to their marks in March – proof that the department’s matric intervention was working.

Even so, figures obtained by The Mercury reveal that of the 17 632 Grade 10 pupils who wrote accounting, 11 026 (64 percent) failed; of 27 000 pupils who wrote maths, 20 600 (73 percent) failed; of the 31 191 pupils who wrote maths literacy, 19 141 (62 percent) failed; and of the 16 756 who attempted the physical science paper, 11 244 (67 percent) did not make the grade.

Districts such as Amajuba (Newcastle), Umkhanyakude (Jozini), Uthukela (Ladysmith) and Umgungundlovu (Pietermaritzburg) fared worst. The uMlazi district (greater Durban) recorded the highest pass rate in three of the four subjects.

Confronted with the data, Mahlambi said they were disappointing but the data had been generated as part of a provincial intervention to identify where the problems were. There would then be targeted intervention in the further education and training band (Grade 10 to Grade 12).

Mahlambi explained that this year, schools which achieved less than 60 percent in the 2011 National Senior Certificate had not been allowed to set June exam papers.

Instead, the department compiled the assessment, assuming that by the time the calendar turned to June, 50 percent of the curriculum would have been taught.

“This is why we are now saying matric starts in Grade 10,” Mahlambi said.

Dr Edith Dempster, a senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Education, called the situation “desperately sad”.

“I’ve seen the enthusiasm and eagerness to learn in children’s faces. This should not be taken as reflective of the capabilities of these children,” she said.

Dempster was especially concerned about the maths marks because “it is probably the most important gateway subject” to many fields of study at university.

She empathised with teachers struggling to cope with curriculum changes, but did not believe this was the cause of the problem.

It had something to do with the number of unqualified teachers in the system. Dempster said she was struck by the number of schools with low enrolment numbers.

“A lot of the schools are very small. It’s worrying. How are they staffing them? Universities are not producing enough teachers. We don’t know how many properly qualified teachers teach maths.

“There have been calls from powerful voices to raise the pass mark. But if we did that, we’d have a minuscule amount of pupils attaining that 50 percent,” she said.

Dempster pegged the chances of passing maths in Grade 12, for a pupil who had failed the subject in Grade 10, at 20 percent.

An educational psychologist at the University of Pretoria, Professor Kobus Maree, agreed that the introduction of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (Caps) had not had any marked improvement. (Caps was rolled out in grades 1 to 3, and Grade 10 this year.)

“It’s the old combination of: Are teachers teaching as well and professionally as they should? Are pupils studying? Are parents supportive? My guess is also that there isn’t access to resources,” he said.

It was a case of under-perfor-ming schools being staffed by unqualified teachers, he added.

“These are critical subjects.

“For a developing country to reach a 6 percent growth rate will be determined by what happens in classrooms. This does not augur well for our future.”

He said he was “dumbstruck” as to why a significant amount of pupils had failed maths literacy.

“Let’s see what teachers’ grievances are. Let’s make sure textbooks are available from day one. Why aren’t we seeing Blade Nzimande making it compulsory for graduates to do community service in rural and township areas? And what about the school managers?”

Good principals bought books themselves, photocopied material and borrowed from more affluent schools rather than waiting for doomsday to come, he said.

“The political will is there,” and leaders were desperate to improve the situation. “But there’s a huge misalignment between the top [the MEC and the head of department] and schools. We need to find out where the pipe is leaking,” he said.

Mahlambi did not dispute that having unqualified staff manning the blackboards was to blame – particularly in rural areas where recruiting, retaining and replacing star teachers remained tricky.

He also cited ill-advised subject choices, poor school management, and lack of parent involvement as contributing factors.

Mahlambi added that it was perhaps to the detriment of Grade 10s that schools focused all their efforts on their Grade 12s. - The Mercury