Pass-rate scepticism belies real, steady improvements

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THE national and provincial education departments are in a double bind. If the matric pass rate declines, it is seen as evidence of the crisis in the sector. On the other hand, if the pass rate improves, there is universal scepticism.

Some explanations have been offered by "experts" about why the matric pass rate might have gone up without an improvement in the system. Some have suggested that in some years there was political interference with the statistical adjustment process and that the education authorities were strongarmed into unwarranted upward adjustments of raw marks.

It has also been suggested that the increased pass rate can be explained simply by virtue of easier, less challenging examination papers being set by both the provincial and national departments. A few experts have argued, particularly in the past few years, that the minimum pass mark has been set low, making passing easier.

Other explanations focus less on examinations than on the proportion of the age cohort that gets to write the examinations, implying that the improved pass rates are a function of declining numbers.

While there may be something to each of these explanations, they fail to provide a wider view - an historical perspective on the fundamental changes that have taken place in the education sector over the past two decades. To understand how this has happened, it is useful to divide the past 18 years into three distinct periods.

During the Yizo Yizo period from 1994 to 1999 (named after the controversial TV drama series that captured the sense of urban decay), most former department of education and training and homeland secondary schools did very poorly. In Gauteng in 1997, for example, 90 of the 450 public schools that offer matric had pass rates of less than 20%.

Botshabelo Maja, who was a young graduate student at the time, wrote eloquently about the almost total "breakdown of the culture of learning". However, that phrase masked key societal trends in the sector at the time. Many urban secondary schools had re-enrolled thousands of overaged young people of the "lost generation" - pupils who had either failed or had dropped out of school as the result of their political involvement in the 1980s and early 1990s.

It was not uncommon for township schools to have hundreds of these young adults enrolled but not necessarily attending. The student politics of the early 1990s continued into latter part of the 1990s in places such as KwaThema, where disruptions become part of the daily rhythms of urban secondary schools.

At the same time, the newly formed South African Democratic Teachers Union was building its mass base, recruiting and struggling for dominance in schools with older teacher formations. Many schools experienced high levels of conflict between an older generation of teachers, many of whom were school managers, and the new and assertive union members.

At a policy level, the new provincial governments were just starting to merge the old racial departments and build the basic structure of the new bureaucracy when the Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy and fiscal austerity made meeting competing demands for new schools and additional teachers challenging.

The policy priorities of the newly established education departments was teacher "rightsizing", school governance and examination administration (given the exam paper theft debacles that happened in 1996 and 1997).

The election of the second African National Congress administration in 1999 marked the beginning of a new period. Kader Asmal and provincial MECs such as Ignatius Jacobs responded to growing public outrage about the low matric pass rate. The national department launched programmes aimed at restoring the culture of teaching and learning.

At a regional level, provinces such as Gauteng pushed schools to tighten up bureaucratic compliance. The Education Action Zone project in Gauteng, for example, began to monitor and introduce real sanctions for latecoming. But while these initiatives began to shift the official discourse and signalled the importance of the bureaucracy attached to matric results as the most important "system" indicator, the decade that followed was characterised by extensive labour unrest, with almost annual national teachers strikes and much localised activism.

This occurred over national policy issues such as teacher "rightsizing", an occupationspecific dispensation and remuneration.

Alongside this decade-long period of labour unrest and instability, the provincial departments were tasked with implementing the new and overly ambitious curriculum framework. While the effects of the new curriculum were staggered and were felt mostly in the later years of this transitional period, schools took some time to understand what the new curriculum meant for the senior certificate examinations.

During this turbulent decade, the national matric pass rate fluctuated wildly, moving up and down in an almost random pattern.

But while a clear trend was not evident for the national school system, a small number of "outlier" schools in challenging circumstances began show that improvement was not only possible in township areas, but that it could be sustained year after year. Schools such as Reasoma in Protea North, and Aha Thuto, Bhukulani and Realogile began to break the mould and showed that good leadership could stabilise institutions and provide real opportunities for disadvantaged pupils in township public schools.

But 2009 was a low point from the perspective of the national pass rate. Few expected gains in 2010, particularly, as the 2010 Soccer World Cup disrupted schooling for an extended period in the middle of the year. But contrary to expectations, 2010 will be remembered as the year that began a period of extended upward movement. In Gauteng, the pass rate climbed from a low of 72% in 2009 to almost 84% last year.

There are signs that we are moving into a new period of greater stability and consistent improvement. While township secondary schools continue to experience some of the problems associated with both the Yizo Yizo and the transitional periods, such as latecoming and labour unrest, the problems are less frequent and affect fewer schools.

A growing number of township schools are beginning to emulate the "outliers" and are showing that it is possible to have consistent results and improved matric pass rates - even in challenging circumstances.

From the provincial government side, the government interventions have become smarter and more effective.

The current Secondary School Improvement Programme in Gauteng, for example, focuses on extra tutoring in after-school, weekend and holiday programmes.

These sessions are taught by experienced teachers who know what pupils need to pass.

So what does this account add to the analysis of the matric results? We need to recognise how much our township secondary schools have changed since the time of Yizo Yizo. Notwithstanding the huge challenge secondary schools continue to experience with the poor quality education most of their pupils receive in primary schools, there has been a very real improvement in the wider education environment.

Fleisch is professor of education policy and heads the division of education leadership and policy studies at the Wits School of Education. Mbokazi is a lecturer in the division.

Story by: Brahm Fleisch & Zakhele Mbokazi

Picture: THINKSTOCK

Source: Business Day

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