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ALMOST 40 percent of the country’s high schools were categorised as ‘‘underperformers’’ last year for having a matric pass rate below 60 percent.

A lot has been said about the quality, or lack thereof, of the low matric pass rate.

Much has also been said about pupils who move up the grades in primary school without knowing how to read or write, and who then inevitably fail in high school and sometimes even drop out.

Many reasons have been given for this poor academic performance, ranging from inadequate teacher training to language barriers and pupils’ socio-economic conditions.

A research study, which was commissioned by The Presidency with the intention of using the information to inform interventions and policy making and was conducted by University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Social Development, looked at the issue of grade repetition in underperforming high schools.

The report, which is one of several that focused on various issues within the education system, found that underperforming schools were characterised by high numbers of grade repeaters.

Out of a total of 78 high schools in the Western Cape, where the research was conducted, 22 were underperformers. The study found that 41percent of the pupils in the province’s underperforming schools had repeated one or more grades.

It found that most repeats, 68percent of them, happened in high school and 31percent of them were in primary school. Seven percent of grade repetition happened in both primary and high school.

“In measuring repetition rates of individual learners over time, the data strongly suggests that learners struggle during the first two years of schooling … with repetition rates declining between Grade 3 and 7.”

“From Grade 8 the data shows a steady increase in the percentage of learners falling behind, with failure rates showing a peak in Grade 10 and 11,” the report states.

Researchers, who interviewed teachers, principals and district officials, found that pupils failed in high school because of weak primary schooling.

The staffers agreed that the big contributor to grade repetition was policy and systematic problems.

The Department of Basic Education’s policy regarding grade retention states that a pupil can only repeat a grade once in a phase.

This means if a child is in the foundation phase (Grade 1 to 3), for example, they can only be failed once during those three years, regardless of their performance.

The report states that even pupils who don’t have the requisite skills get pushed through the grades.

When speaking about this policy, a teacher from a rural school said: “We are forced to promote mediocrity by the system. We pass the ball to the next teacher and as the child grows older the problem gets bigger.

‘‘When only 28 percent of the matriculants pass we get the blame and we are told to pull up our socks and get more involved. I’ve told the district office the problem started 10 years ago, they say they know, but we must ‘maak ’n plan’ (make a plan).”

When speaking about education during the a conference on political, economic and social change in Joburg last week, Dr Linda Chisholm, a special adviser to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, said the retention policy was implemented after 1994 as a way of pushing pupils out of the system.

“Because repetition rates were so high after 1994 it led to a problem where old children were keeping younger children back so a policy had to be developed to push them out,” she said.

Chisholm said the issue of repetition was a problem not just in SA school but globally as well.

“Repetition rates (in SA) stand at 9percent while the international norm is 5percent,” she said.

A report on the drop-out and pupil retention strategy by the Basic Education Department ,which was submitted to the portfolio committee on education in June last year, found that in 2007 a third of the pupils (about 33,3percent) had repeated a grade.

By the time they reached the Further Education and Training (FET) phase, that figure rose to 52 percent.