Transformation of the education system

In the following piece I want to respond to some of the criticism of the 2018 matric results, call for more of the top achievers in matric through the public education system to be recognised, remind us of a debilitating legacy, and plead for support of teachers.

The 2018 matric results

The matric results have become a political football– even more so than usual in this election year. Every year the Minister of Basic Education announces the matric pass rate, which is always improved, and boasts about what has been achieved. Every year the various statistics indeed show improvement.

Every year the critics raise the same points:

  1. The number of learners enrolled in grade 12 is only a fraction of those in e.g. grade 1 and grade 10.
  2. The learners who pass grade 12 with bachelor’s degree exemption are not ready for university. First year university students lack adequate language skills and knowledge.
  3. The criteria for passing matric are too low, meaning that passing grade 12 doesn’t count for much.
  4. If you heard any of these criticisms for the first time this year, it is because these voices are amplified in an election year. These points have been raised often enough.

Clearly the education system does need improvement. It

Why are the same criticisms raised year after year?

is one of the most critical areas that need to work optimally for the country to achieve its potential, improve people’s lives and be economically competitive in the world. But what expectations are reasonable and what change is within our grasp?

Firstly, it has to be accepted that this will take years to correct. The numbers will remain shocking for many years to come. The establishment of grade R is a recent development – there was no grade R twelve years ago. For this year’s matric results, only the number of children in grade 1 in 2006 is relevant, because if all went to plan, those children will have written matric in 2018. But we know that there are many children who take longer to get to matric, so the number of this year’s matrics have to be added to those of next year and the year after – if they did grade 1 in 2006. This happens for every cluster of about 3-4 years, I would guess, and these clusters overlap. So it’s complicated, the explanations do not fit into sound bites, and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has been trying to explain it. The Department does, however, need to have an efficient tracking system that easily accounts for every learner, and this might need improvement.

We should keep in mind the context in which education takes place. We have a struggling society – crime ridden and beset with domestic abuse, poverty and unemployment. This does impact significantly on children’s ability to pass at school, and therefore, it impacts on pass rates at every grade level, drop-out rates, and finally, matric statistics. It also affects the children’s ability to acquire the basic tools for further study – fluent reading and writing in English, numeracy, and the ability to study by themselves.

The second point is true, but universities have their own ways of screening or assisting potential students. The rest of the higher education sector– the diploma and certificate qualifications – tends to be ignored but is just as important. Most school leavers should attend TVET colleges and be trained in marketable, practical skills. This will make them more employable than many of our university graduates, equip them to start their own businesses, and not waste their time. The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor, has correctly been promoting the choice of TVET colleges. When next year’s matric results are released, I would hope there will be as much noise about the limited choices offered by TVET colleges as about the lack of preparedness for university.

The third point should be seen in the above context. What is the minimum necessary for students to succeed at a TVET college? Are the criteria for a diploma pass or a certificate pass reasonable? It’s true that a basic pass without qualifying for higher education at all has very low criteria, but surely this acknowledges that the learner was in class for most of 12 years (or more) and would have acquired something – a smattering of literacy and numeracy, a brush with the English language, a bit of knowledge. Surely this is enough for a small proportion of learners? The learner has been given the opportunity to learn, and now has to find his/her way in life, as an adult. This sounds callous in a country where there is so much youth unemployment, but let’s be honest – the education system cannot by itself solve unemployment – which is in fact a societal and economic problem.

The neglected top achievers

The unintended effect of such criticisms repeated very vocally every year, is that we neglect to celebrate those amazing achievers who beat the odds and rise up to overcome their backgrounds, including those from backgrounds of poverty and under-resourced schools. They achieve top results despite lack of resources, role models and even teachers. These super-talented young people are ignored because the overall numbers of the matric results are regarded as dismal. The DBE does celebrate some of them when the matric results are announced. Perhaps these rays of light are dismissed because the education system is perceived to be mired in permanent darkness?

For those familiar with the NSTF Brilliants programme, this is a distressing attitude.

Each year, the Brilliants programme celebrates those matrics in public schools in all provinces, who achieved the top marks in the country in maths and physical science, and who have chosen to study sciences, engineering or medicine at South African universities. In recent years, all 18 selected students achieved 90% or more in both subjects. There are several every year who achieve 100% in both. And there are not only 18. Nowadays there are 40-50 matrics who have marks of 90% and more, and who satisfy our criteria. Without the restrictions of the criteria (choice of studies and university), there are even more of these extraordinary matrics.

Why are these learners ignored?

The first reason is mentioned above – a kind of denialism, a refusal to believe that our education system can ‘produce’ such learners.

The second reason is timing – the lists of top achievers in maths and science are not ready when the overall matric results are publicly announced in January. The NSTF requests lists from the provincial education departments soon after New Year. Although this has been the case for more than a decade, it still takes up to several months for some departments to send these. It is only once we have contacted the students and completed the selection process, that NSTF can publicly announce these high performers. The selected group, which does not exceed 20 per year due to funding constraints, is hosted at the NSTF-South32 Awards gala dinner at the end of June. This seems to be too late for the media to take notice.

I therefore appeal to the DBE to ensure that all the top performers in maths and science are also announced and celebrated when the matric results are released – not just one learner in each of these subjects. It is misleading in any case, to suggest that these are ‘best’ performers – there are many!

Apartheid legacy

Improvements in our education system should always be seen against the backdrop of the apartheid legacy, without it being an excuse for poor performance.

After 24-25 years the population expects that we should have had greater success. Yet 25 years is not a long time measured in terms of an education system’s development. Those born in 1994 are only about 24 years old now. Their school education took place in a broken system. Most of their parents, other adults in their lives and teachers had been severely affected by the ‘Bantu’ education system. It is remarkable what the new generation has already accomplished, given this appalling legacy.

Lest we never forget – the following events dominated the South African education system and placed insurmountable obstacles in the way of black people in South Africa. This happened within living memory and hampered the education even of one generation ago. Under Hendrik Verwoerd (Prime Minister from 1958 to 1966, and before that, Minister of ‘Native Affairs’, 1950–1958) various pieces of legislation were promulgated which deliberately ensured that black people would be held back in terms of education. For example:

  • In 1953, the ‘Bantu’ Education Act was passed
  • In 1958, the Department of ‘Bantu Educationwas established as a separate department. This ensured that much less resources would be allocated to black schools and, in all aspects, black education would be the stepchild of South African education. Education was only compulsory for white children and not for black children. (Read up about these destructive measures and their implications).
  • The Extension of University Education Act (1959) put an end to black and white students attending universities together and created separate tertiary institutions for the different races. A very small number of black students were allowed by special permission to attend the ‘white’ universities.

During a visit to South Africa in 1982, Robert McNamara, ex-president of the World Bank (where he served for 13 years, retiring in 1981) said:

I have seen very few countries in the world that have such inadequate educational conditions. I was shocked at what I saw in some of the rural areas and homelands. Education is of fundamental importance. There is no social, political, or economic problem you can solve without adequate education.

This was only 26 years ago, and this inherited inequality lingers on even as efforts are being made to eradicate it.

In this context, the Department of Education and thereafter, the Department of Basic Education have not done badly. The statistics all show an upward trend and the number of top matric achievers is also increasing.

Mathematics education

At the NSTF STEM Education Discussion Forum last year, there were many expert presentations and much discussion addressing the issues of transformation in mathematics education. All specialists and the DBE agree that maths should be taught for understanding. However, in the end, teachers must teach for understanding. Without their own understanding, they are not able to do so. Nothing will change by changing the wording of the curriculum, or the words used in educator courses or workshops. It will not even change with good textbooks and workbooks, although these are essential tools. Teachers, like learners, must learn through doing. Trainers and supporters of teachers at the discussion forum were clear that one cannot have a mass approach to improving maths teaching. It has to be done through intensive work, one-on-one with each teacher in the classroom, and with teachers in a school supporting each other.

The implications are clear – it will take a long time to transform mathematics education across the country. Experts in maths education who have been working for change in this regard for decades, said that it might have been naïve to think it could happen quickly. Transformation is a long term project.


We should not be blind to genuine improvements and achievements because of dissatisfaction with the slow pace of transformation.

Celebrate the young people who perform excellently, and especially those who excel despite their history and circumstances. Help the NSTF to recognise more of these remarkable learners/students.

Remember our history. Besides the response of anger, we should factor this into the assessments of our country’s progress and planning for the future.

The improvement in most children’s learning depends on the quality of teaching. Teachers cannot be expected to teach for understanding when they have insufficient understanding themselves and are unsupported in their growth as professionals. The burden on their shoulders is greater than the expectation of compliance, or being at school for a specific number of hours, and anything extraneous to the act of teaching itself. Equip, support and encourage our teachers.