Matric results show we need to take control of education


One would expect that a reasonable government would constantly look for ways in which they can improve their own performance. A well-functioning state can create the conditions for a prosperous society – or so the theory goes.

But then again, as a member of parliament from an opposition party once remarked: On any given issue it is quite easy to predict what the ruling party and the government (which in South Africa are largely the same thing) will do. Simply consider all the possible ways they could react to this situation, then decide which one would be the worst, and there you have it!

One such example is the issue of how to improve education. There are numerous things that can be done to achieve this. One can enact laws to limit trade unions like SADOU’s ability to disrupt the education system; one can start to curb corrupt activities in education, for example the “jobs for cash” scandal during which union leaders accepted money in exchange for appointing people as principals and deputy principals; one can ensure that the principals of mismanaged schools are fired, and that governing bodies are given more authority to ensure greater community involvement; one can take action against civil servants who do not do their job to be of service to schools – such as where textbooks are not delivered; one can launch programs to ensure that politicians and civil servants generally regard education as a higher priority; one can ensure that all the promises made in the past about building schools and so on are fulfilled. The list goes on… And we haven’t even mentioned the privatization of schools.

None of this has been done in South Africa. In fact, as could be predicted, the South African government’s response to the education crisis is only weak. Instead of investing in education, they seek to raise the pass rate by lowering the standards. We are now at the point where there are several subjects for which a learner only needs 30% or 40% to pass. As soon as the impact of this becomes clear as the pass rate rises, politicians celebrate the great work that has been done to “improve the quality of education”. This is as laughable as it is ridiculous.

2023’s ‘historic’ pass rate

In 2023, South Africa achieved a pass rate of 82.9% (compared to 80.1% the previous year). This is the highest pass rate that South Africa has ever achieved since the National Senior Certificate was implemented. The problem when discussing averages like this is that they tend to distort the reality of better and worse performing schools.

South Africa indeed has many schools that perform in line with some of the best schools in the world and whose alumni indeed perform on par with students from countries where the standard of education is much higher than in South Africa. On the other hand, these statistics about averages tend to obscure the true extent of the crisis in the South African education system, with 80% of schools considered dysfunctional for various reasons.

Consequently, celebrating the schools and learners who perform well is insufficient justification for the claim that all is well with education in South Africa, and by expressing concern about dysfunctional schools, it is also not claimed that there are no excellent schools not.

Many of these excellent schools are public schools, but this is disproportionate to the number of private schools and schools whose learners write the Independent Examination Board (IEB) exam. In fact, the IEB’s matrics consistently do much better than those who write the regular matric exam and they consistently achieve a pass rate of more than 98%.

One would expect the South African government to celebrate this remarkable achievement of the IEB, but as could be predicted, the opposite happened. Instead of congratulating them, the Gauteng premier, Panyaza Lesufi, openly attacked them and said that only one exam should be written. He also hinted that there is something suspicious about the mere existence of the IEB. This is reminiscent of Thomas Sowell’s remark that those who complain about privilege usually do so because they do not understand the difference between privilege and achievement.

Actual pass rate

In addition, the government’s response to experts voicing their concerns about the “real pass rate” is even worse. It is said that in order to determine the “real pass rate”, it is not only necessary to determine how many of the matriculants who wrote the exam passed; instead, it must be determined how many learners who were in grade 1 12 years ago passed matric this year. If we take this into account, we will find that the “actual pass rate” is not 82.9%, but 55.3%.

One could once again expect a responsible government to recognize this, express concern about the dropout rate and to explain to the public what they plan to do about it. But the South African government has once again done more or less the opposite.

Elijah Mhlanga, the department of basic education’s chief director for communications, says in a letter to the Daily Maverick that the “real pass rate” is fake news because the inclusion of learners who dropped out in the pass rate would detract from the real issues that young people face. He further reminds us that many children do not complete their school careers within the preferred 12 years because some are killed, some become drug addicts and some of the girls become pregnant. Although the director does not mention these facts, he certainly uses them as the basis on which his department boasts a higher pass rate.

Not a good plan

It is very clear that the South African government has no idea how to deal with education. In the exceptional case where the government attempts to tackle a problem or make a contribution in any way, everything that is done is aimed primarily at giving more power to the government. The proposed Bela legislation which seeks to give the government greater control over school governing bodies is a good example of this. In addition, all efforts made by the government so far to improve education quality have simply been attempts to find quick fixes to improve short-term outcomes.

There is no long-term vision for better quality education in South Africa.

Do it yourself

This brings me to the central point: If we want proper education for our children, we should rather do it ourselves. It is a depressing conclusion, but it is also a liberating one at the same time. It is liberating because it forces us to accept that our future is in our own hands.

We can do this by getting more involved in our children’s education – on the one hand by helping them as much as we can, but on the other hand by getting involved in the schools in our communities. There is abundant research that suggests that community involvement is a prerequisite for effective schools and a functioning education system.

In addition, we can do this by getting our schools out of the hands of the government. Although it is not an easy road, there are ways in which schools can start taking steps to get out of the hands of the government as much as possible. In addition, we need to start focusing on building more private schools and supporting those that already exist.

Many so-called state schools are still functioning excellently, especially the schools that were previously known as model C schools. We must support these schools as well. But supporting existing, well-functioning schools is only one part of the solution. The long-term solution lies in building, maintaining and servicing our own institutions.