These days, South African secondary school pupils are taking the most important academic exam in their lives so far: the matric exam, a prerequisite (but by no means a guarantee) for enrolling in institutions of tertiary education .
A record number of full and part time learners are taking this year's exams: 642,691 of them, which makes this the biggest group ever to write matric in South Africa. Eight thousand exam centres have been set up nationally. The exams end on 3 December 2010 and the results will be released to the anxiously awaiting audience of young people (and their parents) on 6 January 2011.
While the number of learners taking the matric exam is steadily increasing to reach this year’s record level, the pass rates have been declining since 2004.
A government report from 2007 shown that the pass rate in 1998 was less than 50%. In subsequent years, it experienced a marked upward trend, peaking at 70% in 2004. However, every year since then the pass rates have been falling, all the way to the dismal 60.70% in 2009.
That in spite of all the pledges and promises that, come next year, things would work out better.
It is difficult to be optimistic for 2010 generation of learners. They lost one month of schooling due to the compulsory holiday during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Then they lost three more weeks due to the teachers’ strike, strategically positioned in the month of September to coincide with preliminary matric tests. The situation is aggravated by recurring riots and vandalism by pupils in some schools and by the reports (that, surprisingly, failed to rock the educational boat) about billions of Rands of funding that provincial education departments cannot account for.
All in all, South African education seems to be in a bad state. A recent survey by Newsweek confirms this: it ranked South African education system as 97th out of 100 - fourth from the bottom. South Africa puts more money into education than many richer countries – and yet, many of the poorer states in Africa have better education. It has been said that what has happened in the field of education is probably one of the biggest failures in the new South Africa.
Most of the blame has been laid onto the Outcomes-Based Education (OBE), introduced in 1998. OBE has very harsh critics. Thus, University Professor Jonathan Jansen says: “If the disastrous consequences of Outcomes-Based Education were visible on television as millions of sick and dying children, we would be horrified by the effects of this experiment of our first democratic government. But since education wounds are not as visible as in a health crisis, we cannot immediately see the damage wrought.”. (See The Enduring Legacy of OBE.)
Teaching and learning methods have been intensively debated during the struggle against apartheid, especially in the 1980s and the early 1990s. The priority was to abolish the racist, sexist and authoritarian strictures of apartheid-designed "Christian National Education". In intention at least, OBE was a perfect vehicle to achieve the aims of liberation, because it centres on children and their needs, rather than on school inspectors, ministers and churches.
However, in order to work, OBE requires small classes, sophisticated educational equipment, and excellently trained teachers. Post-1994 South Africa could not afford any of these prerequisites – and the country still cannot afford them today. Suffice it to say that some rural schools still do not even have electricity, water or a roof above pupils’ heads.
The government maintains that “the outcomes based education as a broad framework for education and training in South Africa remains the official approach”, but is planning to introduce some modifications. For example, the plan is to reduce the administrative workload on teachers and to stress the foundational knowledge in literacy and numeracy. The new education plan will be implemented as a five-year plan and it is to be hoped that the changes will go beyond using the term “subjects” for what used to be called "learning areas".
Image source: Uitenhage High School