SOUTH AFRICA. Karen Mac Gregor reviews the latest matric results in a country that has long suffered from low-quality schooling. Newspaper reports about South Africa's 1996 school-leaving examinations, the first to be conducted on a non-racial basis, reveal widespread concern about cheating.
They also reflect fears about declining standards and doubts about whether the matriculation examinations (matric) are a credible judge of academic performance.
It is right for South Africans to be worried about these matters. But it is wrong to believe they are new.
Exam leaks and technical problems plagued the Department of Education and Training, formerly charged with running African schools, for years. It is only now that there is a single, non-racial education system and formerly white schools are affected that there has been a public outcry, though the resulting protest may force the new government to ensure cheating does not happen again.
The real problem facing South Africa - highlighted year after year by matric results but largely ignored - is the fact that education generally is of such dismal quality that half the country's young people fail their school-leaving examinations. South Africa is simply not producing the human capital it desperately needs, said Dr Ihron Rensburg, deputy director-general of national education.
The 1996 matric pass rate stands at 52.2 per cent, with 14 per cent of pupils receiving a university exemption. This is an improvement on the pass rate of below 50 per cent of most recent years, but not a substantial one.
"We have a hell of a long way to go," said John Pampallis, director of the Centre for Education Policy Development in Johannesburg. "Schools need to be improved. More resources need to be put into schools, and funding needs to be equalised.
"But more important than resources, to make a difference we have to improve quality. There needs to be a concerted, national effort to improve the culture of teaching and learning in schools."
South African pupils can take either the higher or standard grade matric, with pupils able to do different subjects at different grades according to their abilities.
Matric results generally were best in first-language English, Afrikaans and Zulu, and in standard-grade accounting and home economics, and worst in higher-grade biblical studies, which only 20 per cent of pupils passed, and in higher-grade biology, geography and history, which just over one in four pupils passed.
Last month, despite many problems encountered in the preparing, writing and marking of the school-leaving exam, the government and the South African Certification Council declared themselves reasonably satisfied with the running of the exams and the validity of the results.
"It is important to point out that the 1996 matric has set a baseline against which South Africa and the government can in future be evaluated," Dr Rensburg said. "The pass rate stands at 52.2 per cent: that is where we are and now we need to get better."
The results show that although South African schooling continues to be of low quality, most matric papers were of a reasonable standard and marking generally reflected achievement. Schools and pupils who were expected to do well mostly did. Dr Rensburg believes last year's difficultiescan be fairly easily ironed out.
Dr Rensburg added that central government is looking at "concrete ways" of improving matric at the end of 1997, including new legislation to deal harshly with cheats, better security for exam papers, streamlined and decentralised marking, and a better system of paying examiners and markers.
Meanwhile the provinces (regional education authorities) are already working to reduce cheating. In some areas pupils caught cheating in last year's matric have had to wait a year to resit, while education officials or teachers who condone cheating or are involved in leaking papers face fines or prison.
Dr Mike Jarvis, deputy director-general (administration) of education in KwaZulu-Natal province, agreed that the problems encountered in the first non-racial matric were not insurmountable.
"There has been such massive change from the old system that the new education departments have built-in inefficiencies. They have to be tackled."
Papers were of a reasonably high standard. "KwaZulu-Natal used panels of examiners from all the old education departments to set papers, resulting in an effective combination of different ways of examining."
In fact, he argued, the new matric papers are an improvement on the old. The former Natal education department (white provincial education department) had reached a stage where matric questions were too complex and geared towards a very elite group. "Matric should not just be geared towards university entrance. We now have a common examination which is more fair."
The South African Schools Act of 1996 provides the framework for tackling the low quality of education, according to Mr Pampallis, and the government has plans to train parent governors (many only elected this year) and teachers in school management.
"Parents need to play a more active role in schools, so that they can make demands on teachers and on their children and can support the process," he said. "Better school management and governance needs to be backed up by a high-profile, quasi-political campaign that promotes a culture of learning in schools.
"Teachers must be encouraged to teach, they need to be retrained, become more committed and prepare their lessons. They need to ensure that pupils are at school, and that they are being taught for all of the 200 school days in the year. We need bums on seats." Which is precisely what has not been happening in African schools.