Matric data is manipulated again to squeeze out an acceptable outcome

I was delighted to be out of the country and escape the annual freak show of the national Department of Education, also known as the ministerial announcement of the 2017 matriculation results.

Fortunately, much of the South African public no longer believes the minister’s fake news.

Our sophisticated public would in fact agree with one of my academic supervisors that “if you torture the data long enough eventually it will confess”.

Here’s another way to look at the tortured data of the national senior certificate (NSC) results.

The Department of Basic Education says the matric pass rate is 75.1%, about 2.5% higher than in 2016. To believe such nonsense, the minister is asking that you forego common sense. Forget that more than half the pupils who started in Grade 1 with these successful matrics actually dropped out of the system.

Forget that we know 78% (almost 8 out of 10) of children cannot read with understanding in Grade 4, a recent finding that placed us last among the 50 countries with which South Africa was compared.

Forget also that we know 9% of Grade 6 teachers cannot pass a Grade 6 maths test. Forget that the pass mark in some subjects is 30%.

In other words, ignore completely the available scientific studies of the actual state of the school system and pretend government is doing a good job and the ruling party has delivered on its promises of a better life for all.

So why has the pass rate increased? Simple – because fewer learners wrote and passed the Grade 12 exam. If, as my colleague at the University of Stellenbosch, Nic Spaull, has argued, you measured the pass rate not by the few who got to Grade 12 but by the number of learners who started in Grade 10 (107446 in 2015) and who wrote in Grade 12 (534484 in 2017) and who passed from this group (401334 in 2017), then the throughput pass rate is closer to 37%. It is, after all, a senior certificate exam and that means we account for grades 10-12.

To put this bluntly, the three provinces that saw their percentage pass rates increase (Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape) just so happen to be the ones in which the number of pupils writing has decreased.

Which raises for me a much more fundamental question. What does it say about a government that celebrates the few who ran and survived the obstacle course from grades 1 to 12 but ignores the majority who failed along the way?

And it is not as if the few who passed – even those who graduated with a so-called Bachelor’s pass (which formally means they can study towards a degree) – have a solid academic education to see them through tertiary studies.

In fact, we know most of these students will drop out of universities and few will attain the degree in the minimum time. That is because the quality of the NSC exam is so weak in the intellectual demands made of learners that virtually anyone should be able to scale the 30% (three subjects) and 40% (three subjects including home language) passing hurdles.

Let me say it, this government and its basic education department are a disgrace to the nation. They have failed our children – and these are mainly black and poor learners stuck in dysfunctional schools.

The children of the middle classes, white and black, are the ones who mainly pass and succeed in this inequitable system. They also happen, by the way, to be the children of government ministers and officials happily ensconced in former white public and especially at private schools.

I worry about what happens between these annual freak shows.

A few days ago I got this inbox message from a Grade 12 pupil from EZ Kabane High School in Port Elizabeth after I had posted a critical comment on the minister’s celebration of the results.

“I was so inspired yesterday when I saw your post and realised how everything you said was true. I’m a Grade 12 student this year and fear I won’t pass this year due to the lack of responsibility from some teachers. It’s been a struggle not having a permanent maths and life sciences teacher. It’s a huge concern to most of us – we want to pass and head to university. Please sir, bring a change to these people misleading us.”

I mention the name of the school (but obviously not the learner) so the politicians and officials responsible can act on this situation and give these children a chance at success in school and careers.

I will, of course, pursue this case and ensure that action happens.

But there are hundreds of schools in this situation in the Eastern Cape alone, and to change the status quo you need a government, a different government – one that does the hard work during the school year rather than boasting about a failed system in January each year.

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