The month of January is synonymous with familiar rituals. Many of us renounce our various vices, including overindulgence in food, drink, and perhaps even, our lovers. We resolve to do better, exercise more, learn a new skill, and spend more quality time with family. In South Africa, we traditionally engage in a slanging match over the matric certificate examination results and their credibility.
The exchange generally unfolds as follows. Officials from the Department of Basic Education, posturing as the great and the good, release the results with much fanfare. Without a hint of irony, they do a self-evaluation, and enlighten the nation on the sterling results that they have achieved, and how grateful we all should be.
The rebuttal from parents, civil society, and employers is always instant and vicious. Expletives are spat out, damnation of government ineptitude is proclaimed, and threats of emigration are delivered. By early February, the fever is broken, and it is back to business as usual.
At the heart of the acrimony is the 30% threshold accepted as a “pass mark” for each matric subject. From where does this come? Many of the significant changes made to the South African education system post 1994, have sought to increase inclusivity and participation in formal education. This important and valid imperative sought to address the exclusionary practices of our past, that stymied the education opportunities of citizens of colour.
But this 30% “pass mark” has back fired spectacularly. From a moral and values perspective, parents have rightly stated that it sets very low standards for their children. It kills a sense of ambition, hard work, and the pride of achievement. That such a low “pass mark” damages learners generally, and black children even more so.
Employers have also bluntly rejected the 30% “pass mark”. While the most aspirational companies to work for are more measured in their vocalization, their actions, and our record high unemployment rate shout out unambiguously: “We don’t employ anyone who claims to have passed having achieved 30%!”
The net effect of our basic education conundrum, and the stalemate between the government, parents, and broader civil society, is that the credibility of the entire matric certificate has been devalued and debased. The wealthier amongst us today, insist our children do Cambridge GSCE and A levels in parallel, so that they are furnished with a credible and robust, globally recognised qualification. And the remaining 85% of learners are condemned to a third-rate learning experience, and a questionable certificate at its culmination.
How did we get to this sorry and tragic point? The truth of the matter is that as a nation, our attempt to provide quality basic education has failed spectacularly. And the 30% “pass mark” threshold is an attempt to tinker with the problem, while not addressing the root causes and challenges. It is much easier to prescribe a 30% “pass mark”, than to provide well trained and motivated teachers, build robust and comprehensive school infrastructure, deliver key inputs such as books and other consumables on time, address the general dysfunction that pervades many of our schools…the list is endless.
Contrast our endeavors with those of Rwanda, Kenya, and Ghana but to name a few. These countries have been steadily increasing their education standards, making them more rigorous and demanding of learners, and challenging students not just to be domestically competitive, but to be able to hold their own in an increasingly integrated global and digital economy in which they can ply their skills. Are their education systems perfect? No. Do they accept a 30% “pass mark”? Absolutely not!
In truth, despite its bravado and trying to throw money at the problem, the government knows it cannot solve these challenges alone. But it will not publicly admit it. And it lacks the courage to confront powerful stakeholders such as trade unions on the tough and necessary action required. Consequently, the people who will continue to suffer are our children.
The driving forces of my own education, my grandmother and my father, peasants, poorly educated and impoverished as they began, would never have accepted a 30% result from me. They were Africans who believed that their children rise to the level of expectations that are set for them. And those standards were high! In me they birthed a chartered accountant, a doctorate, and a global education technology entrepreneur.
In my own home, my four-year-old daughter knows that “In this house, the pass mark is 75%!”. Why would I set a standard for other people’s children, that is lower than the one I have for my own child? The 30% “pass mark” is a grave miscarriage of justice. By officials who send their kids to the best schools and would never accept this standard for their own children.
A radical overhaul of education is required in South Africa. All institutions and people that can contribute need to be enlisted and deployed. That means we need to draw in the responsibilities of the public sector, the expertise of the private sector, and the participation of key stakeholders including parents, non-profit organisations, and trade unions. Unpopular decisions need to be made. Quickly! And implemented with urgency.
If not, our children will be the victims of our ineptitude and paralysis. And particularly, our children of colour.