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Reformed exams face local hitch

SOUTH AFRICA. Two sets of tests will replace the matric taken by school-leavers.

Probably none of the half a million or so South African teenagers who began their school-leaving examinations this month pondered the fact that 1996 is supposed to be the last year the "matric" will be completed. But then, they had other things on their minds.

According to the government's white paper on education and training, approved by cabinet in March last year, in future pupils will take two major sets of examinations: a general education certificate after nine years of compulsory schooling, and a further education certificate at the end of 12 years.

It was hoped that the new system would be introduced in 1997. Experts estimate, however, that it will take three to five more years before the provinces - which are organising common matric exams for all pupils for the first time this year - will be able to introduce a new two-tier exam system.

John Pampallis, director of the Education Policy Unit at the University of Natal, says the provinces are not even thinking about implementing such a system. "They are still trying to consolidate the new matric, and many are struggling. The provinces are certainly not going to feel comfortable handling two sets of examinations from next year."

The future education system, similar to that in Britain, will have two points at which young people can leave school. A general education certificate at the end of standard 7 (14-year-olds) would mean that many pupils could exit with a qualification at that point.

There are several compelling reasons for nationally-recognised exams at the end of nine compulsory and three optional school years, the main ones being the current drop-out rate among pupils, budgetary constraints, and the inappropriateness of the current schooling system.

In South Africa, the primary school drop-out rate of African children is estimated at nearly 30 per cent, and only around half who graduate from primary school do so in the minimum seven years. Currently, as many as 20 per cent of African pupils fail have to repeat their first year in school.

Even among the small proportion of pupils in poorly-resourced African schools who make it to matriculation, fewer than half pass: last year 48 per cent of African matric pupils passed, compared with around 98 per cent of whites, 95 per cent of Indians and 86 per cent of coloureds (mixed-race).

An examination at the end of standard seven, the year in which a second big tranche of pupils currently drops out, would mean that pupils could at least obtain some form of qualification.

The second reason is that the government simply cannot afford to pay for compulsory schooling for all young people for 12 years. In 199596 it spent 28.5 billion Rand (Pounds 3.7 billion) on schools, representing 87.5 per cent of the education budget, 18.5 per cent of total government spending, and 5.7 per cent of GDP.

And the strain on the budget is rising rapidly: despite a still high drop-out rate and over and above natural population growth, ever increasing proportions of children are staying in school. Between 1988 and 1994, the number of matric candidates rose 70 per cent, from 291,000 to 495,000, and the number of pupils in standards 9 and 10 is expected to double in the next eight years.

It is envisaged that in future pupils will pay for the last three years of school, with their fees depending on ability to pay. Entry into the three optional years will probably be based on performance in the general education certificate, with poor pupils "sponsored" by the state and no pupil who is prepared to pay excluded from the system.

And the third reason is that South Africa does not need large numbers of pupils coming out of what is currently a mostly academic school system: there should be far greater numbers of pupils studying more technical subjects.

It is proposed that the three-year optional secondary stage be substantially reformed to offer pupils a variety of tracks, either academically or technically or vocationally oriented, leading to a further education certificate. This qualification will replace the current matric.

Details of this phase of schooling are not spelled out in the white paper, indeed the thinking remains very fuzzy and will be looked at more carefully by the government's recently established further education task team.

But the idea is that around 60 per cent of pupils will go on into the three-year optional stage, probably about half of them into the academic "stream" and the others into more technical or vocational courses offered either by schools or a variety of community colleges and other institutions.

Many pupils should be able to complete this part of their schooling part-time, in the unlikely event that they are able to obtain a job.

Mr Pampallis said: "While pupils in basic education up to standard 7 will follow similar curricula, during the three years of further education they will have a lot more choice and there will be a lot more splitting into different areas."

Nevertheless, he adds, the further education certificate will be one element of the planned national qualifications framework. Whether a young person takes academic or technical subjects, the level of learning achieved will be equal.

So, while pupils this year sweat over the first set of common matric exams so far taken in South Africa - previously different race groups wrote different tests - there is little general awareness that far more radical changes are just around the corner.

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