While the overall improvement in the 2016 National Senior Certificate (NSC) matric pass rate, including the overall increase in mathematics and physical science pass rates announced on 4 January 2017, are a welcome step in the right direction, the intense focus on matric results does little to address the long-term challenges facing education in South Africa.
That’s the view of Dr Fatima Adam, senior research and communication manager at the Zenex Foundation, an independent grant-making agency which aims to positively contribute to the education sector through research and the development of programmes and projects designed to advance proficiency in Mathematics, Science and language development.
“We applaud the 2016 NSC matrics on their overall success and we also welcome the increase in bachelor pass rates, specifically of those in the poorest and most disadvantaged schools (quintile 1-3 level),” says Dr Adam.
She adds that it is, however, very difficult to comment on the detailed extent and nature of improvements at a national level as well as by subject without a thorough analysis of the full NSC 2016 technical report.
Dr Adam maintains that evaluation of the overall “health” of education within South Africa cannot be focused on the matric results alone. Zenex Foundation believes that the huge resources that are directed at improving the matric results each year can be compared to applying a Band Aid to a broken limb.
“To properly improve the nation’s results in the final year of school, we need to focus far more attention on the foundation phase of education – from Grade R through Grade 3 - because that is where the matric results issue will ultimately be resolved,” she says.
Dr Adam refers to an analysis of the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) undertaken by Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Economics which has clearly shown that there is a high correlation between children’s end-grade 3 results and their grade 12 results.
“In addition, as student performance in literacy and numeracy in the first three to four years of formal education is one of the major factors affecting academic performance in the higher grades, a recent examination of the 2011 prePIRLS (Progress in International Reading Study) assessment of South African Grade 4 learners, which found that 58% of the sample could not read for meaning in either their home language or English, while 29% were completely illiterate, is extremely worrying,” Dr Adam adds.
“The children involved in the study will be part of the matric class of 2019. We should be concerned with ensuring that these learners are able to achieve quality passes when they reach grade 12. We should also be deeply concerned about the number of these scholars who will drop out along the way as the gap in their education becomes insurmountable.”
Dr Adam raises concern about the extensive budgets from both Government and donor communities which are currently being spent on supporting catch up programmes and remediation projects. She points out that the cost in time, money and resources to assist these children to overcome the huge deficit in their education – through, for example, the implementation of “bridging classes” later in their school careers – is enormous.
“We therefore need to direct as much energy and resources to ensuring we reduce the number of children requiring remediation in the first place by focusing on improving teaching within the foundation phase.
Dr Adam further cautions it’s important to remember that improvements in national education systems – even those systems around the world - are gradual. Change is incremental.
“Improvements in education are a very long, slow process. Only by mending the early learning issues, improving literacy and strengthening foundation numeracy skills will we eventually see significant and sustainable improvements in the matric results. We should be expecting small increases so that we move steadily and realistically to success,” she concludes.