Poor pass a wake-up call

RARE KIND: Nonhlanhla Thela. Pic. Thuli Dlamini. 06/01/2010. © Sowetan.
RARE KIND: Nonhlanhla Thela. Pic. Thuli Dlamini. 06/01/2010. © Sowetan.

WITH seven distinctions 16-year-old Nonhlanhla Thela is one of a kind. A rare kind.

With a 100percent pass in pure mathematics she is one of a dwindling posse of young minds, a development that has raised alarm bells.

But will her certificate carry any weight? Are standards in our matric dropping, as some experts point out?

Some ask why, when South Africa spends a greater percentage of its budget on education than any other African country, are things still going south.

In her address to congratulate the 71000 pupils who passed matric in the province, Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creecy lamented the drop in the pass rate, from 76,4percent to 71,8percent, in 2009.

"We are disenchanted but not down for the count."

She gushed at the 32597 distinctions the province gained. But will these ensure the individual student an easy ride into tertiary education?

Writing in our sister newspaper The Times yesterday, columnist Professor Jonathan Jansen, who is the rector of the University of the Free State, seems to think there's a need to reconsider whether the Senior Certificate is still the best way to decide on university entrance.

An outcry ensued when there was a suggestion from Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to lower the pass rate to 40percent. Some commentators were aghast, saying this would cheapen the quality of an education already in disarray.

Wits Business School's Stanley Letsoko says our education system is in a shambles.

He thinks we should not be celebrating the meagre national pass rate we've achieved as "taking it down to the province, you will find the situation shocking".

"Standards are deteriorating. I don't trust what I see as a true reflection. The overall pass rate is cosmetic."

While he disagrees with Jansen that we still need matric as a gauge to university entrance, Letsoko remains pessimistic about the unfavourable situation.

He says our education system, because of its flaws, churns out unemployable graduates.

"These can only swell criminal syndicates because there's no other option open to them."

University of the Western Cape rector and vice-chancellor Professor Brian O'Connell reportedly said nothing dramatic had happened in the education environment to improve things.

While there's cause for concern, education specialist Graeme Bloch does not think our matric standards are dropping.

He thinks very highly of Umalusi, the statutory body that sets and monitors standards for general and further education and training in the country.

"They are a professional organisation that is doing excellent work."

Umalusi has done well lording it over a mass education system that now sees more than 500000 pupils sitting for matric examinations, says Bloch, who points out that in 1976 there were about 1200 black pupils writing the exams.

He laments the fact that with a near 61percent national pass rate, it means there's close to 40percent of young people with bleaker prospects.

Bloch, who has written widely on education, including his latest book The Toxic Mix, says we are not getting enough good passes.

He says the 60,7percent pass rate showed there was a downward trend, which was disappointing.

Getting a good matric is vital if we are to meet the challenges of the rapidly changing world, the education specialist says.

Themba Missouw of Wits University says the matric results were disappointing and showed a decline in standards.

"It is getting worse. The government has to come up with a totally new plan. There is no discipline at township schools," Missouw says.

He says the government did not have a plan because the education system was rapidly getting to the same point as in Britain.

Britain had many qualified teachers who were leaving the profession in droves because of lawlessness at schools. It had forced the country to recruit foreigners.

"Democracy should stop in schools. What is needed is a bit of authoritarian rule in education."