Last week, when it was announced that the pass mark for maths would be lowered to 20% for pupils in Grades 7-9, there was collective outrage across the country. Already South Africans routinely complain about the matric pass mark of 30% (although it has been refuted) and so the potential lowering of the maths pass mark below any reasonable standard has many horrified.
The department of Basic Education has already come out to refute the claims that you can pass maths with just 20%. It has stated that it is merely amending the previous policy which states that if a pupil fails maths, yet passes every other subject with distinction, they still fail the year. They go on to explain that the 20% pass for maths is only granted to students who have passed every other subject, yet failed maths, and plan to do drop pure maths for maths lit once they enter Grade 10.
In a country with a functional education system, such a policy could theoretically make sense. The reasoning behind it is that an otherwise competent student shouldn’t be held back by a subject they don’t even intend on doing until matric. After all, not everyone has an aptitude for maths and it doesn’t seem fair to hold a student back from continuing in subjects they excel in just because they are unable to do a subject they have no desire to continue with anyway.
The unfortunate reality is that South Africa’s educational system is dismal. Our education system is ranked as being one of the worst in the world and is ranked last in quality of maths and science. When looking at our schools, it’s easy to see why. There is a massive disparity between private and former model C schools and schools in townships and rural areas. The majority of schools that pupils, particularly black working class pupils, are attending have overcrowded classrooms, a lack of adequate resources such as textbooks, libraries, science labs, computer labs, and a lack of qualified teachers. The teachers at these schools are often too exhausted and overwhelmed to provide children with the kind of attention many need to succeed.
I recently had a discussion with a relative of mine who had been teaching for a few years. One of the things that he told me that alarmed me the most was that there is often pressure on teachers to push through students who are failing. This is for a number of reasons. One is due to overcrowding. Parents will do whatever they can to make sure their children get the best possible education, which means that if a school has a reputation for having good teachers or a good headmaster, parents will try to get their children into that school. This can quickly lead to the school becoming overcrowded. Because of this overcrowding, there simply isn’t space for children who fail to stay a grade behind, and so they often get pushed to the next grade. The second is a numbers game. Higher pass numbers mean that the school is doing well and so the school may pressure teachers to find marks where there are none, particularly in cases of students who fail, in order to boost the number of students who pass.
I’ve witnessed the effects of this first hand. When I was still in high school I tutored boys who lived in a shelter for street children. While helping a boy with his homework, I quickly realised that he the main reason he could not do his work was because he could not read the questions in front of him. It turned out he could not read or write anything besides his name and so far he had been surviving in class by copying down (badly) the words that the teacher wrote on the board. This boy was in Grade 6. He was promoted to Grade 7 at the end of the year despite little improvement to his literacy levels. This was particularly worrying when one considers that when calculating the literacy rate, those with an education level equal to or higher than Grade 7 are assumed to be literate.
What this means is that while the proposal put forward by the Department of Basic Education may appear to make sense on paper, in the context of what is happening in our schools it is formally legislating the system of pushing through pupils that already exists. Those who have failed maths can now be justifiably pushed through without even the need to bolster their marks, which allows schools to look good on paper as more students “pass” but in reality means that students pass through school without actually acquiring a substantial education.
Even with the Department’s explanation, the decision to allow students who obtain 20% in maths to pass is incredibly concerning. It also puts a poor bandage on the state of our country’s education system. Students are falling behind for a number of reasons including poor resources and infrastructure among other issues, and pushing them through fails to address any of the reasons students are failing so often in the first place.
Ultimately, our education system is still failing students, particularly those who are poor and black, both literally and figuratively. Given the Department’s explanation behind the policy, it is entirely conceivable that not even they understand how.