Matric Results Euphoria is Both Educationally and Politically Misplaced
Matric results excitement veils bigger problems in our schooling system that we should be worried about. I believe this situation has been left unattended for the last 27 years and it is thus high time we confront the elephant in the room!
Because to be honest matric results euphoria is both educationally and politically misplaced.
Don’t get me wrong - we need to celebrate the achievement and naturally every positive step should be applauded but not at all costs!
In this article, I will tackle my points of departure robustly and objectively in the best way I know how and I politely challenge anyone to debate with me what should be done to turn the situation around and put our education system back on track.
Year in, year out, matric results occupy not only the minds of learners but also dominate news on TV and grab the attention of parents, pundits, journalists, and the entire nation for two weeks or more with media briefings right up to the official Ministerial announcement. Is this all necessary? Can we not rather focus our attention on better preparing pupils? There are a number of issues during and before the announcement of matric results that get swept under the carpet either for political reasons or because of plain ignorance on the part of leaders. I will touch on a few factors that I think should occupy our minds way before we celebrate matric results.
First, the goal of matriculation is part of the entire schooling system from Grade R. Confining my narrative to the high school set up as it is pertinent in this context, I believe matriculants should be specially groomed from when as Grade 8 learners they set foot on a school’s premises, and perhaps more critically, when they make subject choices in Grade 10 as this is when I believe aspirant matriculants should be properly prepared. A well-grounded Grade 10 learner should progress naturally into a successful matriculant. To be honest, this is nothing new but it seldom gets treated with the urgency it deserves. At this level of schooling, efforts should be concerted and intensified in developing these young people holistically if we are serious about being globally competitive which is possible with the help of parents, school governing bodies, the government, the private sector, and universities. Resources can be made available in time to all the schools with well trained teachers dealing with this specific cohort right up until they sit for their matric final exams.
Second, and this links directly with the above, is the structural misalignment of the departments of Basic and Higher Education which is at the centre of the problem I raise. If these two departments were synchronised, a substantial number of problems would be solved at both policy and structural levels. The tendency in these departments of the one hand not knowing what the other is doing is troubling. Reasons advanced when the departments were unbundled years back do not outweigh the reality on the ground.
There are serious problems - the main one being a lack of vertical articulation. Stuff that basic education teaches does not prepare students sufficiently to cope with the demands of tertiary tuition. For example, teachers at basic level have a limited understanding of the developments taking place at tertiary level. This results in a number of problems for pupils at school level. It gets even worse when learners in high school are pushed into doing subjects that are going to make the school look good when marks are assessed (pass rate) rather than thinking ahead to university subject combinations which require a different approach.
For example, the popularity of Mathematics Literacy as a subject over Pure Mathematics has harmed the prospects of many students, with the problem being more common in public schools.
Third, is the glaring lack of foresight or, at worst, the unwillingness of our schooling system to embrace technology. The situation we have found ourselves in recently could have been handled differently if technology had been introduced in schools 10 years ago. The fact that it was not, again points to the structural misalignment at government level.
We have the Department of Science and Technology that works separately from the Department of Basic Education and ultimately also the Department of Higher Education and Training - two departments with interlocking mandates yet they operate in silos which it seems nobody sees anything wrong with. COVID-19 and last year’s looting and burning could have had lesser impact if we had embraced technology in time. Online learning is common in many countries where it was in place well before the pandemic started so the transition was relatively smooth there because teacher and learners were already adapting to the virtual system. With a bit more foresight South Africa could have reduced the impact of COVID-19 on its schools which is now being used in some quarters as an excuse for matric performance and other negative issues during 2020 and 2021. I must warn you, this two-year gap will be very telling for youngsters in their post matric studies. It is something that could have been avoided had we planned better and is something universities should be ready for and prepared to mitigate in the same way they will now do for their existing first and second year students.
Fourth, is the biggest elephant in the room which most pundits shy away from dealing with - the over-unionisation of teachers. In the last 27 years, we have witnessed the gradual erosion of the culture of teaching and learning and the growth of the culture of politicking within schools. There is absolutely nothing wrong with teachers joining unions, it is their right enshrined in our beautiful Constitution. In fact, principals are encouraged to create a climate that is democratic and free for teachers to exercise their rights. However, in recent times teachers have overly-prioritised politics to the detriment of their civic and professional duty which is to teach! Ironically the militancy some teachers exhibit gets transferred to learners subconsciously. The hours spent in political meetings outweigh time spent in class with principals often unwilling to react because it could impact negatively on their careers. The appointment of principals in schools is often not based on merit but dependent on how many individuals they can recruit for union membership. This culture which has almost crippled the system is reflected in incidents where teachers spend most of their time fighting for promotions using union membership as leverage. The same culture sometimes gets transferred to learners and when they get to university, their priority is to join student politics not for any other reason but for political positions. This has become a toxic situation.
Such issues should be nipped in the bud and solutions negotiated to re-establish a culture of teaching and learning in schools.
There are undoubtedly more issues involved but the points I have raised are, I believe, sufficient to start a healthy debate characterised by the need to create good citizenry, responsible professional people, and a better future for all. It is a debate that should elevate itself above everything, including politics, race, or creed.
As patriots of this beautiful country, we should be brave enough to look each other in the eye and without fear of victimisation or assassination - say: ‘You are wrong.’ There are so many people out there with a genuine desire to see this country prosper and I believe if they are given the space and time to share their wisdom and skills this country will move forward with vigour in the quest to self-correct.
But first we must fix our education system - once that is done successfully, everything else will gradually fall into place.
• Mr Khumbulani Mngadi is an independent analyst based at UKZN.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.