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The Ministry of Basic Education and South Africa’s top business leaders engaged with President Zuma to receive feedback on the National Education Collaboration Trust’s progress in its efforts to urgently and significantly assist government in its efforts to reform education in South Africa. The discussion also covered the significant level of funding already raised to this end by the private sector which has been matched by government –  and a reminder that their target is R500 million per annum.

At a lunch briefing at the Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria on Friday morning, 22 August, President Jacob Zuma, the Minister of Basic Education and several other cabinet members met with some of Business Leadership South Africa’s (BLSA’s) key players, for feedback and dialogue on the progress of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT). The President thanked big business for committing to the Education Collaboration Framework (ECF) and its implementation via the NECT. He also applauded the private-sector funding already pledged to the project – BLSA has agreed to commit 0.004% of their member companies’ market capitalisation annually, over three years, to the first phase of the NECT, rising to 0.008% as the programme rolls out nationally. Government is matching this funding rand for rand. Unions and NGOs are enthusiastically supportive. It’s effectively an educational Codesa.

Zuma stressed that multi-stakeholder engagement was crucial to the NECT’s chances of success – while government is primarily responsible for managing the educational process, he conceded that the NECT, an independent trust managed jointly by a diverse, representative group of trustees was in a good position to give the Department of Basic Education the help it needs to fast track the rehabilitation process.

As a pilot programme to implement Chapter 9 of the National Development Plan (NDP), the aim is undeniably ambitious: to transform South Africa’s basic education system to the point where 90% of learners are achieving pass marks above 50% in language, core mathematics and science. The achievement of these goals will take a collaborative effort across society, which is why the NECT is based on dialogue and consensus between all stakeholders – government, business, teacher unions, NGOs, community, traditional and religious leadership, and parents (through school governing bodies). By collaborating on planning and implementation, each will contribute to overhauling the education environment and the quality of teaching and learning within their own areas of competence toward an agreed plan.

In the meeting it was discussed how these different competencies are already operating in the eight districts – comprising of  4 362 schools (18% of the national total) – in which the project is being rolled out first. The ECF identified six discernible themes for action by the NECT: teacher professionalisation, courageous leadership, improving state capacity to deliver quality education, improving school resourcing, parent and community involvement and learner welfare. By tackling each theme with practical, implementable programmes and securing the buy-in of teachers, government, business and civil society, the NECT has already proved itself more than a talk-shop.

There was healthy and frank discussion between business and government with the Minister of Basic Education, Mrs Angie Motshekga, reiterating the fact that the NECT has made huge strides in mobilising the private sector, as well as society and labour unions to take part in improving the quality of education in South Africa. 

President Zuma called on all the MECs and Ministers present to report back to him about what they have done to support the NECT in practical and tangible ways.  However, he also urged the assembled business leaders to continue BLSA’s drive to secure more committed funding. BLSA has set itself and its members a target of R200-R300 million in the initial, three-year phase of the NECT – funding that will be matched by government.  The NECT is managed and lead by an independent team of educationalists acting as a monitoring and evaluation board, to ensure that spending on interventions and training is as cost-effective as possible. This structure has boosted business confidence in the enterprise.

The bottom line, according to the President, is that fixing South Africa’s basic education system cannot be dismissed as “the government’s problem” by any serious business. This isn’t a case of feel-good gestures or the easing of social consciences – it’s an economic necessity. It is the centrepiece of the NDP. “We cannot grow the economy, or hope to provide economic opportunity to all our citizens, without radical improvement in the quality of education. Funding the NECT may count as corporate social investment, but it is really an investment in long-term business sustainability and economic stability.”

 

the matric pass rate. when should we celebrate?

The recent and unprecedented release by Umalusi, the body responsible for maintaining standards in the Matric exams, of the adjustments made to the 2010 scores has underlined how important it is to treat the Matric pass rate with care. Contrary to popular belief, the Matric pass rate on its own is not a good measure of academic achievement in the schooling system, nor was the pass rate ever designed for this. However, the pass rate can serve as a measure of the opportunities open to our youths. If these opportunities increase, then we should celebrate.

The Matric pass rate, or the percentage of Grade 12 learners in public schools who obtain their National Senior Certificate, is understandably something that provokes lively debate and a fair amount of anguish every year. The fact that the pass rate went up from 60.6% in 2009 to 67.8% in 2010 made headlines. To provide some idea of previous trends, in 2001 the pass rate exceeded 60% for the first time since 1994, but following a peak of almost 75% in 2003, there had been a fairly steady decline.

2010 seemed to mark the beginning of a new upswing. But there were doubts. How could such a dramatic improvement follow the worst teacher strike the country had ever seen?

Misgivings about the marks adjustment process prompted Umalusi to open to public scrutiny, for the first time ever, documents from the standardisation process. The documents appeared to reassure the public that there had not been any undue inflating of subject marks – Umalusi is only able to adjust subject marks, not the pass rate directly. They moreover confirmed that improvements in individual subjects were smaller than the improvement that was seen in the pass rate. As an example, of the eight most commonly taken non-language subjects, one subject saw no change in the average mark, two saw a decline in the average and five saw an increase. In the case of the five subjects with an increase, the average increase was 3.5 points out of 100.

How, one may ask, is it possible to have increases of around 3.5 points in some subject averages whilst the overall pass rate increases by a whole 7.2 percentage points? A key factor is the spread of learners across subjects. When this changes, the pass rate can change, even if performance in individual subjects remains the same. In particular, if learners move to easier subjects, more learners pass. There was in fact a small shift from the harder mathematics to the easier mathematical literacy between 2009 and 2010. The percentage of learners taking mathematics dropped from 51% to 48% – learners must take one of the two subjects.

Another important factor that influences the pass rate is the number of examination candidates. When this decreases, the percentage of well-performing learners tends to be higher, largely because the holding back of worse performing learners in Grade 11 in the previous year has been more widespread. 2010 in fact saw slightly fewer full-time candidates than 2009: around 559 000 against 581 000. This is almost certainly a factor that contributed towards the higher pass rate in 2010.

Comparing pass rates in different years is in fact not like comparing apples to apples. This is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. Examinations like our Matric are simply not designed to compare the performance of the schooling system across years. They are designed to test whether the individual learner qualifies for a certificate, based on the subjects the learner has chosen. If one wants to compare how well the system is doing, one should turn to testing systems like the international TIMSS and SACMEQ programmes, where South Africa has participated for some years.

So is there any cause for celebration when our Matric pass rate improves? Yes, if this means that more youths have a certificate that provides access to further studies or employment. Moreover, the fact that the average mark in certain individual subjects should have increased, for instance from 35% to 38% in life sciences (formerly biology) between 2009 and 2010 does provide an indication that learners are learning better and this should also be celebrated.

More learners need to pass Matric. This is very clear. In comparison to other similar developing countries, South Africa’s enrolment up to Grade 11 is above average. In Grade 12 enrolment is around average. But the number of Grade 12 learners successfully finishing their grade, and therefore secondary schooling, by obtaining their Matric, is low by international standards. The pass rate needs to improve further, both through better learning and therefore performance in individual subjects, and through ensuring that learners choose the combination of subjects that maximises their opportunities. The latter is not easy. Better counselling is needed. But the Grade 9 standardised assessments currently being introduced should partly be aimed at giving learners a better sense of where their strengths lie and hence what subjects they should select for the critical last three years of school.

 


Copyright: Department of Basic Education 2014