By ASHLEY WESTAWAY
The drop-out rate in Makhanda remains obstinately high, at around 55%. That is to say, less than half of the children who enter the schooling system end up write their matric examinations. Otherwise put, the majority of young people drop out of the local public schooling system before the end of Grade 12.
The National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations end next week. Thereafter the Class of 2019 will endure an anxious wait until the release of the results on 8 January. It is an opportune moment to reflect on the size and shape of this cohort of Grade 12s. This is an important exercise, since the throughput rate (or conversely, the drop-out rate) is one of the key indicators of the health of an education system.
A key feature of the South African schooling system is that it allows children to ‘progress’ through it without meeting the stipulated academic standards required along the way. Almost incredibily, one can reach matric without passing a single grade! The mechanism through which this is implemented is a policy called ‘progression’. Essentially what this prescribes is that a learner can only be kept back once in each of the four phases of schooling. Thereafter, the learner must be ‘progressed’ to the next grade, irrespective of academic performance.
The rationale for this policy is to retain age cohort integrity, in order words to ensure that children of a similar age are kept together as they move through the schooling system. In countries that deliver effective public schooling, this policy works because there are ample opportunities for teachers to remediate problems and for learners who have fallen behind to catch up with their peers. However, the over-riding emphasis in the South African system is ‘curriculum coverage’. That is, public school teachers here are required to prioritise covering the full syllabus prescribed for each grade. Teachers are on a treadmill; there is no time to go back or to scaffold learning. Government demands that they plough on, no matter what the learning outcomes.
And thus the widespread, systemic consequence of ‘progression’ in South Africa is that affected learners never catch up; rather they fall further and further behind their age cohort peers. As many educationists in this country have pointed out, the problem starts at the very beginning of formal schooling, in the Foundation Phase (Grades R-3). It is during this phase that children are expected to develop foundational literacy and numeracy competence. It stands to reason that if Intermediate Phase (Grades 4-6) learners have not ‘learnt to read’, then they will necessarily be unable to ‘read to learn’. Intermediate Phase teachers have no time to teach children how to read since that is meant to have been ‘covered’ in the Foundation Phase. Therefore children without Foundation Phase competence are unable to access (benefit from) the Intermediate Phase curriculum.
What compounds the problem is that there are no mechanisms in place to hold primary schools accountable in relation to learner outcomes. High Schools are judged and ranked largely in relation to the performance of their learners in the common matric examinations; this is an objective academic measure that encourages and enables high school accountability. But there are no common examinations written by primary school learners. Moreover, the ‘reports’ produced by many primary schools in Makhanda are hardly worth the paper that they are written on since the marks given to learners by teachers often bear little relation to their respective educational competences. Primary schools in this country operate with impunity.
Every year in Makhanda there are approximately 1200 children who enter Grade 1. However, in each of the past four years the total number of learners that writes the full set of final matric examinations has not reached 600. Effectively, this implies that the retention rate in the Makhanda locality is less than 50% or conversely that the drop-out/ push-out rate is higher than 50%. A school-by-school breakdown of the matric learner numbers is tabulated below. Year-on-year (from 2018 to 2019) the number is flat; Makhanda had 558 young people sitting their examinations last year and there are 557 this year. This stability is bad because it means that drop-out remains stubbornly high, at 54%.
It is particularly disappointing that the former Model C school numbers have declined from 175 last year to 145 this year – this is by far the lowest number in recent years. The reason that this is problematic is that the performance of these schools remains good. In other words, when this number is higher, it translates into a higher number of successful matriculants and when the number declines, it negatively affects the Makhanda pass rate as a whole. On the other hand, it is pleasing the number from the functional component of the no-fee sector has increased to over 300 for the first time since 2015. This component comprises Mary Waters, Nombulelo and Ntsika. In 2018 these three schools all produced a pass rate of 80% or higher. Assuming that they sustain this performance in 2019, their increased collective number of matriculants will boost the overall Makhanda pass rate.
2016 2017 2018 2019
Graeme College 62 59 64 49
Khutliso Daniels 20 32 31 24
Mary Waters 120 106 62 117
Nathaniel Nyaluza 67 53 56 58
Nombulelo 79 50 127 106
Ntsika 70 75 93 93
PJ Olivier 38 26 30 21
TEM Mrwetyana 55 21 14 14
Victoria Girls 69 82 81 75
City Total 580 504 558 557
There are many consequences of a low retention rate, all of them bad both for the young people who drop out and for the Makhanda community and economy as a whole. In South Africa there is a direct relation between one’s level of education and employability. If one leaves school without a National Senior Certificate there is a high probability that one faces a life of long-term unemployment and the associated socio-economic challenges.
The local education community is justifiably proud of the recent improvements made at the top-end of the matric performance spectrum. However, until and unless we are able to improve retention rates and reduce drop-out rates we will not be able to claim a broad-based revitalisation of public schooling in the city. For this to happen, public primary schools will have to become more effective at teaching our children to read, write, count, calculate and compute.