File Photo: Jason Boud

Durban - A policy which gave matrics whose first language was not English or Afrikaans an additional 5 percent of their original mark in subjects including geography and maths has been scrapped.

This year’s matric pupils will be the first not to benefit from the policy since 1999.

The rationale for the policy, intended as an interim measure, was to compensate for the disadvantage faced by pupils forced to write their final exams in a language which was not their mother tongue.

The policy meant that if a pupil’s original mark in a non-language subject such as history or economics was 50 percent, they would receive an additional 2.5 percentage points.

In response to an e-mail enquiry from The Mercury, Umalusi spokesman Lucky Ditaunyane said the quality watchdog had decided in 2011 that the policy would be scrapped after the 2013 exams.

Ditaunyane said matrics who were registered with an African language as their home language, and English or Afrikaans as their first additional language, had qualified for the language compensation.

Basic Education spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said the department was “confident” that discontinuing the policy would not adversely affect the performance of pupils.

“Much has been done over the last few years to improve the language competency of learners across all grades,” Mhlanga said.

Research published in the Perspectives in Education journal in March suggested there was strong evidence of disadvantage for Grade 12 pupils who were taught in and wrote their final exams in their second or third language.

Most children are taught in their first language from grades 1 to 3, with the switch to English being made in Grade 4


Study author Stephen Taylor’s primary research aim was to determine if there was a measurable language disadvantage facing what he termed “compensation candidates”.

Taylor works as an adviser and researcher in the office of the director-general in the Basic Education Department.

His calculations, using data from the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, suggested more than 90 percent of pupils at schools with mainly African-language children had not yet learnt to read with comprehension by Grade 5. This was likely to contribute to “insurmountable” learning deficits in all subject areas.

Using data from the 2010 National Senior Certificate exams, Taylor used four strategies to try to measure the effect of writing non-language subjects in a second language.

He demonstrated that compensation candidates were at a disadvantage in language-intensive subjects such as geography. In more technical subjects such as maths, they were at a disadvantage when responding to questions that required substantial language proficiency.

While none of the four methods used offered precise estimates of the causal impact of language proficiency on test scores, together they provided strong evidence of a language disadvantage for compensation candidates, he concluded.

Again using data from the 2010 matric exams, Taylor conducted a simulation exercise on the potential impact on the 2010 pass rate if the language compensation policy was done away with: the result was a dip of 3.6 percentage points.

He argued that more important than the debate around the compensation policy, were policy questions around how to improve reading in both first language and English, how to ensure a smooth transition to English as the language of teaching and learning, and at what stage this switch should occur.

Professor Servaas van der Berg, of the economics department at Stellenbosch University, said language problems needed to be dealt with in the early schooling years, not matric. He agreed with the scrapping of the policy, as it “diluted” the value of the matric certificate.

Van der Berg said training teachers on how to teach English at the second-language level was critical.

Professor Leketi Makalela, of the school of education at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the policy was “an excuse for not dealing with the fundamental problem” and that pupils instead needed to be given access to knowledge.

Makalela argued that pupils should be taught in their mother tongue up to Grade 6, and then be able to attend dual-medium schools. He suggested that matrics be provided with copies of question papers translated into their first languages when they sat the exams.

The Mercury