By NICCI HAYES
There’s no need to re-mortgage the house or pack your bags for Finland or Johannesburg in order to get your child a quality education – certainly not yet, and hopefully not ever. I read Dr Westaway’s article last week with interest and some sadness. He is a tireless campaigner for education, I respect him as a colleague and a friend but I must respectfully disagree with his response to the 2019 matric results.
While no school in Makhanda other than PJ Olivier is in a position to be entirely celebratory regarding their matric results, I feel that the fee-paying schools, and the “performing non-fee-paying state schools” are still doing an amazing job, and I don’t see this year’s results as particularly calamitous. Here’s why:
Not only did PJ achieve a 100% pass; for the first time in many years they were also on the top 20 list of small schools in the country (defined as having fewer than 40 matriculants) in terms of subject distinctions. (SOS-Matriek verslag-Jan-2020).
I’m really proud of the Nombulelo class of 2019 (as the completely “unbiased” former principal). The overall pass percentage drop of 0.5% is insignificant considering the school’s turbulent year and balanced by an improvement in Bachelor’s passes from 26.7% in 2018 to 28% in 2019. (This compared to 9% in 2016!) In addition, fewer learners split their exams over two years in the 2019 group which is an ‘invisible’ but important statistic.
So I can’t agree that the efforts of the Vice-Chancellor to make Rhodes accessible to local students are being “thwarted”.
As for Victoria Girls’ High School (biased again), I believe the outstanding nature of this school has been taken for granted for far too long. VGHS has long been a pillar of academic excellence, and also a forerunner in education in the town in many ways including the tackling of transformation issues around gender and ethnicity, student and staff leadership models, and teacher internships. (And more passionate and hardworking teachers you would go far to find.)
I have no doubt that Ntsika’s class of 2020 will redouble their efforts having watched last year’s matrics be pipped to the post by Nombulelo’s class of 2019. Similarly, I have no doubt that the VG class of 2020 will re-establish the school’s decades-long tradition of a 100% pass and a Bachelor’s percentage in the 90s. Graeme likewise has sustained very good results for decades. In fact, perhaps this small dip may be a good thing. Learners at good schools can become complacent, and this might re-ignite the passion that is needed to sustain excellence.
I am also beholden to say that the District office embodied by Mrs Nombekho Xalabile did indeed “intervene with intent” at both TEM Mrwetyana, and Nathaniel Nyaluza. And perhaps the improvement in TEM’s pass rate from 36% to 69% is a testimony to that. Even Nathaniel Nyaluza improved somewhat (despite some staff having allegedly chased away two principals who were sent to assist).
As to numbers, the number of matrics writing at Mary Waters almost doubled 2018’s (62 to 116) and despite this they achieved a better pass percentage than in 2017 (72% compared to 66%) when the numbers were comparable. Furthermore, all the schools where results have been moderate to good are bursting at the seams, so last year’s slight drop in numbers is definitely not a trend.
In terms of the wider region we are also not floundering.
Makhanda was the best CMC in the district scoring 75% as compared to Graaff Reinet’s 74.6% and Humansdorp’s 73.8%. The Makana 2 circuit was the top-scoring circuit in the district with an 81% pass (compared to the lowest at 49.5%).
It is true that within the Makhanda CMC, Ndlambe was higher than the two Makana circuits combined. Kuyasa Combined (89.83%), Port Alfred High (89.33%) and Velile at (88.46%) are to be commended. The principal of Kuyasa Combined, in particular has worked tirelessly, personally overseeing holiday academic camps for years. (A contributing factor to our circuits’ results may have been that the department was able to secure venues for Ndlambe schools for camps but not for Makana.)
Perhaps more significantly though, we are lucky enough to have three high-achieving, traditional, well respected private schools in Makhanda. They are an asset to our town and our educational community but imagine if they were not here. If we took the 20-30% of local students out and added their good results to those of local state schools – imagine what a difference that would make to the statistics.
In assessing the success of state schools, perhaps we also need to be looking more broadly than the matric results. We could cast our gaze upwards and see how many graduates and postgraduates our top public schools are producing. (Let’s not assess only how many students are getting in to university but how many are graduating.) I suspect we will measure up very well.
It may be worth noting, too, (not specifically linked to Ashley’s article, but because some people may not be clear on this) we must be careful about comparisons. We can’t look at IEB and state results as if they are comparable – they write different exams (and there is robust debate about how those differences may advantage or disadvantage top learners).
We also can’t compare Gadra Matric School’s results with state school results. Although they do write the same exams, the majority of Gadra students already have diploma passes from their previous schools. Fee-paying state schools also have more teachers than no-fee schools. We can’t compare ourselves to districts and provinces that have ample alternatives to mainstream education.
I could say more. I could speak about the poor performance of Business Studies quite broadly which affected many of our schools; I could talk of the impact of unemployment and drought on morale; I could question what percentage of learners is ideal to be moving on to university; but let me rather focus on saying a big “hats off” to functioning state schools, both fee-paying and non-fee-paying. I believe you are doing a good job, an exceptional job in some cases, despite many challenges. Please, keep up the hard work!
I am not saying that there is not an immense amount of work that needs to be done if we want to be regarded as a city of all-round educational excellence, particularly as regards accountability in poorly performing schools. I’m not saying that I think that parents and learners should put up with poor standards, poor work ethic, or high absenteeism from teachers in schools where they observe such behaviours. (I love Helen Hollaman’s idea of a “my teacher is absent” hotline). Nor should parents or teachers tolerate a poor work ethic or rudeness from children. I’m not saying let’s be complacent. I am saying let’s not turn to despair – there is an extremely strong backbone in public education in Makhanda, schools which have been, and will continue to be, producing top end students who have been thriving at Rhodes and at universities across the country, as well as in many other fields.
Let’s celebrate the amazing hard work that is being done by many many teachers in our town. Let’s celebrate PJ’s success. Let’s trust that VG is still VG. We didn’t write off any of our private schools when they scored less than 100% – let’s support our state schools in the same way. Let’s work together to assist with making sure that every single child in our city enters high school literate, so that they have a fighting chance. Let’s be whistleblowers where we need to be and call out those who are letting us down.
But let’s not, not for one instant doubt that we have educational gems in this town, in the state as well as the private systems.