The matric mirage

Ernst Roets says improving our children's education is up to us

One would expect of a reasonable government to consistently look for ways in which they can improve their own performance. A well-functioning state can create the conditions for a prosperous society – or so the theory goes.

But then again, as a member of parliament for an opposition party once remarked: On any given question, it is reasonably easy to predict what the ruling party and the government (which, in South Africa, is pretty much the same thing) would do. Simply consider all of the possible ways in which the situation can be responded to, then figure out which of these ways would be the worst, and there you go!

One such example is the question of improving education. There are many things that could be done to achieve this. One can pass laws to restrict the potential of unions such as SADTU to disrupt the education system; one can initiate a clampdown on corrupt ventures in education, such as the “jobs for cash” scandal where union leaders accepted money in exchange for appointing people as headmasters and deputy headmasters; one can ensure that headmasters in mismanaged schools are fired, and that governing bodies are given more authority to ensure greater community involvement; one can take action against government employees that don’t do their jobs to service schools – such as delivering textbooks; one can initiate programmes to ensure that education is regarded as a higher priority by politicians and government officials in general; one can integrate the work of different departments to ensure that more people are involved with education in general; one can ensure that all the promises that have been made in the past about building schools and so forth are kept. The list goes on… And then we have not even touched on privatising schools.

None of these things have been done in South Africa. In fact, the South African government’s reaction to the education crisis is predictably bad. Instead of investing in education, they seek to increase the pass rate by lowering the standards.

We are now at the point where there are multiple subjects for which a learner only needs 30% or 40% to pass. Once the impact of this is evident in an increasing pass rate, politicians celebrate the great work that has been done to “improve the quality of education”. It is as comical as it is farcical.

In 2023, South Africa has achieved a pass rate of 82,9% (up from 80,1%), the highest pass rate South Africa has ever achieved since the National Senior Certificate was implemented. The problem with discussing averages such as these is that it tends to distort the reality of better and worse performing schools. South Africa does indeed have many schools that perform on par with some of the best schools in the world, and whose alumni do indeed perform on par with students from countries in which education is of a much higher standard than in South Africa.

On the other hand, these statistics about averages tend to hide the true extent of the crisis in the South African education system, with 80% of schools regarded as dysfunctional due to a variety of reasons.

As a result, celebrating the well-performing schools and learners cannot justify a claim that all is well with education in South Africa, nor should expressing concern about dysfunctional schools suggest that there are no excellent schools.

Many of these excellent schools are public schools, but a disproportionate number of them are private schools and schools where learners write the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) exams. In fact, the IEB consistently outperforms the standard matric exams and consistently achieves a pass rate of more than 98%.

One would expect of the South African government to celebrate this remarkable achievement of the IEB, but once again, predictably, the opposite has happened. Instead of congratulating them, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi publicly attacked them, calling for one exam to be written and suggesting that there is something sinister at play merely due to the existence of the IEB. It reminds of Thomas Sowell’s remark that those who complain about privilege, often do so because they don’t understand the difference between privilege and achievement.

Furthermore, the government’s response to experts expressing concern about the “real pass rate” is even worse. It is said that in order to determine the “real pass rate”, one should not only determine how many of the matriculants who wrote the exam passed the exam, but instead how many of the grade one class of 12 years ago finished matric this year. If we consider this, we will find that the “real pass rate” is not 82,9%, but 55,3%.

Again, one would expect of a responsible government to acknowledge this, to express concern about dropout-rates and to explain to the public what they intend to do to address this. But, again, this is pretty much the opposite to what the South African government did.

Writing for the Daily Maverick, Elijah Mhlanga, the Chief Director for Communication at the Department of Basic Education, argued that the “real pass rate” is fake news because including dropouts in the pass rate would detract from the real issues that young people are faced with. He went on to remind us that many children do not finish school within the preferable 12 years, because some are murdered, some are drug addicts and some of the girls become pregnant. While the director does not celebrate these facts, he certainly uses them as a foundation for his department to boast about a higher pass rate.

It is quite clear that the South African government has no idea how to deal with education. On the odd event that it tries to address a problem or to contribute in some way, everything it does is directed first and foremost at giving more power to the government.

The proposed BELA legislation that seeks to give government more control over school governing bodies is a good example of this. Other than that, in as far as the government actually attempts to increase the quality of education, all the interventions to date have been attempted quick fixes to improve short-term outcomes.

There is no long-term vision for greater quality of education in South Africa.

This brings me to the central point: If we want proper education for our children, we had better do it ourselves. As I have argued on YouTube, this is an oppressing conclusion, but at the same time, a liberating one. It is liberating because it pushes us to accept that our future is in our own hands.

We can do this by becoming more involved with our children’s education – on the one hand by helping them as much as we can, but on the other hand by becoming involved with the schools in our communities. There is ample research pointing to the fact that community involvement is a prerequisite for a functioning education system.

Other than that, we can do this by getting our schools out of the hands of the government. Even though it is not an easy path, there are ways in which schools can start taking steps to get out of the hands of the government as much as possible. Other than that, we need to start focussing on building more private schools and supporting those that already exist.

Many so-called government schools are still functioning excellently, especially those schools that were formerly called the model C schools. We should support these schools as well. But supporting existing well-functioning schools is only one part of the solution. The long-term solution lies in building, maintaining and servicing our own institutions.