What matric exam results reveal about South Africa's school system

06 January 2016 | Story by Newsroom
These matriculants together with many others across the country found out whether their hard work paid off with the release of their final exam results. Photo by Tracey Adams/Cape Argus.
These matriculants together with many others across the country found out whether their hard work paid off with the release of their final exam results. Photo by Tracey Adams/Cape Argus.

Some experts say that there's too much focus on these results and not enough elsewhere in the country's troubled education system. The Conversation Africa's education editor Natasha Joseph asked Alan Cliff, associate professor in higher education at the University of Cape Town, to put the results into context.

1. Do you think that too much is made of the matric results? Is South Africa focusing too much on them and not enough on other education milestones?

At one level, you could argue that too much is made of the school-leaving examination result. However, there is a clear structural or systemic signal that is very important: those who want to go on to higher education require adequate minimum school leaving exam results. In the same way, those who are job hunting straight out of school must provide proof of adequate achievement in the exam.

So it's not surprising that much is made of the matric exam result. Historically, it's been assumed to be a good proxy for requisite achievement in core areas of knowledge and competence. The problem is that it's difficult to determine what the proxy means, both at the knowledge and competence levels. That's especially true in a context where the historical and residual effects of unequal schooling and uneven teacher expertise remain profound.

To focus on other education milestones, such as the results of the Annual National Assessments or pupils' performance at the end of Grade 9 when they can legally leave school – we need to be confident that the disparities in the primary and secondary schooling systems have been reduced or eradicated. We're not confident of this.

We also need to know what it is that is being assessed through these milestones – which means being sure that teachers or assessors are adequately trained experts with experience.

Finally, we need to understand the validity claims that are made on the basis of these milestones. Educators, test-takers and the public need to know what's being assessed, why it's being done and that inferences about the assessment are appropriate.

As a system-wide calibration of what school-leavers know and can do, the matric exam remains the only practicable means of standardised assessment.

2. 166,263 of the 799,306 candidates who sat for these exams passed well enough to qualify for university admission. Approximately how many of them will be accepted – and how many are actually ready for the rigours of university?

Pretty much all students who qualify to be admitted to higher education will be accepted somewhere in the system. Remember that only between 5% and 10% of school leavers will qualify with a bachelor's pass.

Research shows us that only about one-third of all school-leavers who qualify for higher education can be said to be ready for a university's academic literacy requirements. This stems from the historical and current inequities at secondary school level. These are then unavoidably replicated in the higher education sector, which faces massive and multiple challenges in supporting its students.

However, blaming the secondary sector for school-leavers' perceived or actual shortcomings is not going to advance the goal of better-prepared school-leavers and graduates. National development is the responsibility of all sectors.

3. Do you believe there's too much focus on university education at the expense of, for instance, vocational training? Are people falling through the cracks because there's such a drive for university degrees even for matriculants who are better suited to artisanal, administrative or "non-degree" work?

There probably is too much focus on university education. This is not just a South African challenge though, and it will remain for as long as university education is held in higher esteem than other forms of post-school education.

The issue is that school-leavers themselves believe university education to be "worth" more than other forms of education. And this belief has some relation to reality, in that university graduates are more prized than graduates from other post-school training.

Worldwide, countries have tried to "sell" other forms of training as being different to – not better than – university education, but school-leavers, their parents and the wider society are not buying that.

The added issue in South Africa is that channelling school-leavers into different forms of post-school education carries nefarious connotations of historical "gate-keeping" or social engineering. So it is very difficult to motivate to a school-leaver that vocational training is a better option than university education. University education still picks itself.

4. Your own research through the National Benchmark Test Project shows that South Africa's matriculants are, generally, hugely underprepared even after 12 years at school. What do you think is going wrong at the basic education stage?

First, the resourcing of primary and secondary schooling. The Department of Basic Education has made huge attempts to address the inequities of schooling provision across the country. But the reality is that many schools are still hugely under-resourced.

Even with equal resources, the bigger challenge is the lack of qualified and experienced school teachers at primary and secondary level. There's also a relative lack of incentive for school-leavers to train as teachers and of infrastructure to support excellent training.

The third major contributor historically is the nature and quality of the assessment systems that are in place. These enable students to pass examinations by engaging with cognitively less demanding forms of assessment.

This has been pointed to in a number of studies which show that the proportion of cognitively more demanding questions in the school-leaving examination has reduced over the last ten to 15 years, significantly in relation to the assessment of English Second Language learning - and this has a direct impact upon facility in the language of teaching and learning. It's an issue which prompted the review of the assessment system that's currently underway.

Natasha Joseph, Africa education editor, The Conversation interviewed Alan Cliff, Associate Professor in Higher Education Studies, University of Cape Town.


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