Matriculants celebrate their matric results. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha
Matriculants celebrate their matric results. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

Has education system come to the party?

By Time of article published Jan 11, 2015

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The Department of Basic Education must grow the number of maths and science passes, writes Mary Metcalfe.

Johannesburg - This week’s achievements in the National Senior Certificate (NSC) were celebrated and the nation focused on the “pass rate” as an indicator of the performance of the education system.

We sought reassurance that:

* Young people were developing the requisite skills, values and attitudes to replenish and regenerate the engine of development and become the active citizens needed to sustain our democracy.

* The investment of 20 percent of the national budget was being used efficiently and effectively, maximising quality and reducing inequity.

* Meaningful education opportunities were reaching into families trapped by poverty to fulfil Madiba’s vision that “education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation.”

Do the NSC 2014 results confirm that young people are achieving their potential despite racial and class divides and across the urban and rural universes?

Is education building a sense of belonging, of confidence in each individual to make a social and economic contribution to family, community and nation? Is this being achieved coherently across the education and training system?

Some key elements of the NSC dashboard: of the 532 860 full-time 2014 NSC candidates, 403 874 passed (75.8 percent) and 128 986 failed.

Twenty-eight percent achieved a pass allowing application for university admission. Of these, 32 percent attended the 10 percent of schools that are “least poor”, while only 15 percent were from the 30 percent of schools serving the poorest communities.

The children of the working class and unemployed continue to be under-represented among those who reach the first hurdle of qualifying for university access.

Of the 2014 NSC candidates, 42 percent attempted maths and 31 percent physical science. Of these, 53.5 percent passed maths and 61.5 percent physical science.

Only 79 050 passed maths with better than a 40 percent pass, and 62 030 did so in physical science. The number of passes with more than 30 percent fall far short of the president’s target of 180 000 passes in maths and 175 000 in science.

These figures describe one part of the skills base: the minority who proceed to higher education. The Department of Higher Education and Training told Parliament that 158 000 new entrants registered at universities in 2013.

Of these, for the “scarce skill” sectors drawing from the small pool of NSC maths and science passes, 12 911 registered for engineering, 9 169 for life and physical sciences, and 7 933 for animal and human health. Converting entrants into graduates is another challenge. In 2012, the number of university graduates in science, engineering and technology was 48 048. Is this sufficient to drive the economic sectors that depend on these skills?

What actions will increase levels of success and quality in the NSC gateway subjects, making more students eligible for disciplines requiring these skills?

Basic education must grow the number of bachelor degree and maths and science passes so that the Department of Higher Education and Training can achieve its goal of increasing university enrolment from 937 000 in 2011 to the 2030 target of 1.6 million.

A reality check: in the past seven years, the number of NSC bachelor degree passes has ranged between only 110 000 and 172 000. What actions could double this in the next seven years?

The university sector is only one component of the education system and training system required for sustainable development.

What are the indicators of the health of the critical technical and vocational education and training system?

In 2014, of the 344 800 pupils enrolled in vocational education and training colleges, 146 140 were registered for the National Certificate (Vocational). This three-year qualification was introduced in 2006 and is equivalent to the NSC, but focuses on vocational programmes. The 2014 NC(V) enrolment figure was 4 percent higher than in 2012.

The N 1-6 qualifications are historically strongly associated with workplace education and artisan development. In February, 182 524 enrolled for N courses. Further N and other enrolments during last year took the number to the 670 455 reported to Parliament in October. However, the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training sets a target enrolment of one million for TVET colleges for this year, and of 2.5 million by 2030.

To achieve the 2015 target, a 49 percent increase in enrolment would be needed in one year, requiring massive human and infrastructural capacity. The performance of the TVET colleges suggests this is not realistic.

The most recent available figures for TVET performance are for 2012. In that year, for the NC(V), only 83 percent of the students registered across the three years at public and private colleges registered for the year-end exams.

Of those who registered, 60 percent wrote the exams. Of those who wrote, 41 percent passed. More alarming is that of those who registered to write the exam, 25 percent passed. Of those who enrolled, only 21 percent passed their end-of-year exams across the three years of the qualification. This is an extraordinary snapshot of wastage.

The pass rate across the three years is consistently low: 43 percent in the first year, 42 percent in the second year (with a student group that is 38 percent of the first year’s cohort), and by the third year of the NC(V), only 32 percent of the surviving student group pass (which has shrunk to 25 percent of the first year’s group). The total output of the NC(V) in 2012 was a paltry 6 018 students nationally.

The N courses do not perform much better. Of all the N 1-6 students entered for exams in 2012, only 21.5 percent passed. For the N6, 992 qualified in engineering, and 1 910 in business studies.

If – of the 500 199 NC(V) and N students in the three years of study in TVET colleges – the “yield” in 2012 was only 8 920 graduations, it is questionable that the capacity exists to increase registration to one million without substantial investments to build a capacity for success. Such haemorrhaging of human potential is destructive to the students who drop out and are left with a deep sense of failure.

But these are not the only youth for whom the experience of education has been of marginalisation, even alienation.

A 2013 Department of Basic Education report said “nearly 60 percent of youth left school with no qualification beyond Grade 9” and only 40 percent of an age cohort passed matric. A 2007 study of the 2.85 million youths in the 18 to 24 age group who were not in education or training and not in employment showed that 72 percent (two million) had left school before Grade 12.

For the majority of youths who leave school every year with no credentials, for the many thousands who drop out of or fail at TVET colleges, swelling the ranks of the unskilled and unemployed, what does this journey mean for belonging, for confidence in contributing to family, community and nation?

Can we say we have supported them through education to develop the skills, values and attitudes to participate in development and sustain our democracy?

* Metcalfe is a professor at the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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

The Sunday Independent

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