Education standards: are we undervaluing our children?

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This topic contains 1 reply, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  sylvia hammond 8 months, 3 weeks ago.

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  • #36155

    sylvia hammond

    New year always brings news reports of parents leaving their young children at school with tears in their eyes – the parents, not usually the children who are exited at the new adventure. 

    Whatever country you visit, the new school year brings the same pictures.  But behind the scenes is there something different going on in South African schools?

    In a telephone conversation today a friend pointed out to me that the pass rate has been dropped to 30%.  She was talking about a school in Khayelitsha. 

    So I wonder if skills-universe members who I know are more experienced in these things than I am, can help me with these questions:

    • what is the pass standard percentage for each grade?
    • has the pass standard been dropped? 
    • does this apply to all schools?
    • does this apply to all provinces?
    • if it has been dropped, why is this – does the education ministry think our children are not capable of more than 30%?

    I really appreciate members sharing their thoughts on this issue.

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  • #36169

    Des Cross

    Here is a true story to highlight the perilous state of our education sysytem and which is based on my experiences as a marker and having access to the examinations database.

    Joe achieves a raw score of 15% in a final matric examination.

    The examinations section adjusts this raw score to 20%.

    Coupled with his CASS (Continuous ASSment) mark of 56%, he gets a final mark of:

    20%/4 x 3 = 15 marks (75% exam) + 60/4 = 15 marks (25% CASS) = 30%, a pass!

    Most of the candidates that I marked over the past 15 years (60 – 70%) achieved less than 30% in the final exam. 

    Before that, the exam was more difficult and the marks were somewhat higher (the old DET). This is because students were not promoted willy nilly from one grade to the next.

    I have visited many schools in the last 10 years where, for example, grade 11’s had completed 2 chapters of work (10% of the syllabus) and that is all they were tested on, and then promoted. Aslo, so-called dedicated teachers teachers were only teaching one grade and arriving at school at 10. I could go on and on.

    We have an educational catastrophe, and the politicians and unions are to blame. They had the opportunity to revolutionise the system and so destroy the legacy of apartheid. What they have done is to perpetuate it.

    Even Bill Spady, the OBE guru asked “what the heck are these guys doing to your country?”

    In my industry (I left teaching) we have just done numeracy tests for new recruits. They have recently completed matric (“passed”). They cannot do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication or division (e.g., what is 60 divided by 4).

    I hink we have to cry the beloved country because I have not found any person or group who have the answers to our National crisis.


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  • #36168

    I fully agree with all the argument that attest to the systems improvement of our education. Looking at passing a student who literally got 30% to face a university leaves much to be desired. However most of the conclusions that I read about depicts a wrong atmostphere. It is one thing to blame the governments and unions, but if this argument attempt at Zero Basing , than a fallacy of syllogism has been created. It is as if government started in 1994. I hold a degree in Political Science, honours in Public Administration and Master in Commerce. However, I also attended a school in the Township during the seventies and eightees where we experienced having to be tested on 20% work done, or where there were no text books or teachers. Before Tukkies could enroll me I had to undergo a deries of tests. Catastrophy does not begin with current government. Mind you unions are a large part of the changes that we are experiencing now. We will do justice by tackling the factors that led to this state of education from the hermeneneutics point of view

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  • #36167

    sylvia hammond

    Thanks Des, your personal experience is very interesting to understand how the system works.  Co-incidentally at the weekend a friend and ex-colleague was explaining how she did well in assignments and poorly in exams. But she is very competent at her job.  

    So that raises a question for me about exams – what is the international practice?  Are exams still used and to what proportion of the marks?  I recall that in the past exams were simply a case of repeating by rote what was in the books – not really providing relevant understanding or practical  knowledge.

    From what you say about matric abilities it seems that what we are doing really isn’t working to provide people with a working knowledge of simple calculation.   

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  • #36166

    sylvia hammond

    Christopher thank you so much for your response.  From your personal experience what do you believe led to your success and what would you do to improve the current situation?

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  • #36165

    Gugu Lukhele

    Great Simon Moropa, could i have your contacts please.

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  • #36164

    I personally think that assessments on learners from grade 1, both continuous and the final exams should be taken seriously at the school level. I think the problem gets bigger when an incomptentent learners (perhaps not well taught learners), move from grade 1 to 2, 3 and so on without having grasped the basics. The reason an average learner is found wanting in grade 7/12 is because nothing was done before this. Of caourse there some learners that may not be so academically inclined, but I still think they should still be able to handle primary school level, otherwise what will become of their lives.

    I do not know the details on how teachers are performance managed, but I would recommend that their assessments are moderated/ external examined to confirm if they teach the curriculum or not. I am aware that at primary level there arenational learner assessments done  at the end of the foundation and intermediate phase. I am quite sure there are assessments also done at secondary school level before matric. My question is what is done about the results of such assessments and what is performance implication on teachers and head-masters. Until there are consequences to poor pass rates, not much  change or improvement will be made. 

    Ofcourse the natural and easiest response that I am likely to get from teachers and SADTU is that teachers do not always have learning resources, and well the usual salary issues. Well, not to belittle the matter, I still think we can do more with what we have and not all schools are failiing because of lack of resources. Let one teacher take ownership of one class at a time and show commitment and we will get there. Some of the countries that are ranked higher than South Africa do not have the resources we have.

    I am one of the people that believe that marks should not be adjusted at all. I do not see any reason to celebrate 73% matric pass rate that is made up of 30%, Es and Ds. Do you know what that does to the psyche of a child? It is even more disturbing that the 30%, as explained by Des Cross is actually a fabircation.

    If we have matric learners who can not  do basic calculations, it is a sign that basic aducation was not done correctly at foundation phase and primary level. How do we then introduce complex concepts and principles at secondary level and expect them to pass.

    On a light note, but may be on a quite serious matter, I do not understand why any primary school should ask a child to bring a calculator to school. Really now.

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  • #36163

    Des Cross

    At our school in Bhisho we selected talented underprivileged students into grade 10 with a promise of tertiary education when they completed matric. To our horror, we discovered that many students who joined us had had an appalling education up to that point. They were highly intelligent but functionally illiterate.

    We decided to spend the first six months of their grade 10 year upgrading their skills but not in formal subjects. The staff had to integrate across subjects. We decided what skills were important for tertiary study and then we allocated two or more teachers to each skill. These would be teachers of different subjects. For example, the accountancy teacher was paired up with the physical science teacher and the biology teacher was paired off with the English teacher.

    Each skill was developed by these teachers, each bringing their own unique experience into the mix and dividing the labour. This “experiment” led to improved matric results. But what was more amazing was a few years later when most of the universities came knocking, wanting to know our secret. How had we transformed our students, most of whom were black, into highly competent, competitive students who were dominating the rankings in many of their faculties?

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  • #36162

    Des, this is such a good story confirming my sentiments. We have to do first things first with learning and liteacy. It is good that these learners had committed teachers who did what had to be done. If just 20% of that kind of thinking and effort where to spread country wide incrementally every year and in each grade. The impact will be amazing.  

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  • #36161

    My daughter is in grade 2 and her stationary list requires a calculator, maybe that explains our children’s inablilty to do basic maths calculations. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for my daughter I am attempting to write  grade 12 HG maths so no calculators for her, she will learn the importance of maths.

    I have made the acquittance of 2 children, the 1st failed 3 grades in her school career due to family circumstances, but for the last 2 years that i have know her she has been condoned ( if that is the right word) and moved from one grade to the next without her even understanding the basics of her subjects. She is now not allowed to go back to the school as she is past the age the school will accept her. This child got let down by the schooling system.

    the 2nd child is now going to grade 9, he is an intelligent boy that was raised by his grandparents ( he failed grade 1 when his father died) , but was more interested in playing computer games than learning. At the end of grade 7 his maths mark was something like 43%, but he got moved onto grade 8, again his marks were in the 40’s and he got moved to grade 9.  There is something very wrong to allow a child to go to grade 8 when he cannot even understand the grade 7 work.

    Are teachers still allowed to fail children?  If we dont we are setting our children up for failure and a grade 12 pass rate that will always be questionable.

    The 3rd child is now going to grade 10, she is a hardworking intelligent girl with the ability to achieve great things, much to my surprise she was allowed to chose maths literacy as a subject when she had the ability to excel in maths.

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  • #36160

    Hi Sylvia

    The pass percentages for each subject have not been published by the DoBE for 2012. I think the last year that all subject pass rates were published were 2010. The DoBE only published the comparative results of the Top 11 most popular subjects. When we analysed the pass percentages per subject a few years ago, we found that nearly half of all students (45%) who passed achieved between 30 and 40% per subject. Minister Motskekga stated the following in her Grade 12 address this year (where she raised the issue of the 30% pass requirement):

    “Actually, in 2012, the percentage of learners in the 30-39% level is about 1.8% making it quite strange to have this hullabaloo that we pass children at 30%. Almost 98% of our learners doesn’t pass at this level.”

    Since we don’t have the actual results to verify her statement, we can only speculate. But given that about 1/3 of students passed with access to a Higher Certificate only, this means that their overall result was between 30% and 39%. And if you allow for the fact that students may fail one subject, then on a subject level it is probably fair to conclude that between 35% and 40% of subjects were passed with a mark of between 30% and 39% (if we exclude the languages where 40% is already required). So the Minister’s statment seems rather odd.

    Be that as it may, one can’t simply say that if we increased the pass percentage to 40% per subject that more than a third of students would also fail. Exam marks only count 75% of the final mark, so School Based Assessment (SBA) marks will help struggling students. And it is probably also fair to say that in most cases students achieve higher % marks for their SBA than for their exam marks. Of course, schools can manipulate these marks be either adjustment or simply setting final assessments that cover only a part of the syllabus, as Des has already indicated. I remember that there was an inquiry in 2009 at a school in Mpumalanga that had 0% pass rate but 100% SBA marks.

    I’m a firm believer in the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be “academic achievers” because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students’ IQs were no higher than those of the “normal” students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the “achievers” had attained better grades and higher IQs than the “normals.” The reason? Teachers had expected more from the “achievers”, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. But something had also sparked the “achievers” to do better – so they had internal motivation and external help. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results (adjusted from

    If we set the bar at 30%, most students aim for 30%. If we set the bar at 40%, students will have to aim for 40%. Prof Jonathan Jansen is a firm believer of the principle that the bar must be set at a height that is a government “sign-off” that the level is appropriate to set you on your way towards success in life. Obviously, he disagrees that 30% is an appropriate level.

    If you analyse the stats of the 11 most popular subjects (reports are available on, you will see that for all 11 nubjects the pass rate has improved since 2009. However, you will also see that for the key national developmental subjects such as Accounting, Maths and Physical Sciences, there has been a significant drop in subject registrations since 2009 (Accounting down 40 000 students, Mathematics down 65 000 students, Physical Sciences down 30 000 students). And that’s a comparison between 2009 numbers and 2012 numbers. This is not just a major concern for the universities, but should be for all of us. It seems that more learners are taking “easier” subjects such as History and Maths Literacy.


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  • #36159

    Zerelde Uys

    This article by Nic Spaull is very informative on this topic. Brilliant analysis of stats and facts.

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  • #36158

    Thanks Zerelde for this informative link. I’d like to add a few comments:

    1. In my opinion, the issue of the drop-out rate during the FET phase (Grade 10 to 12) is contentious and cannot simply be linked to poor education in the previous years of study (I’m sure it plays a major part). Many socio-economic factors come into play, as well as movement into the FET College system. But from the point of view of a drive to increase Higher Education participation rates, the numbers are frightening. Our research shows that in public schools for 2011, exactly 50% of students dropped out between Grade 10 and Grade 12. Accross all schools the average was 47%, but the indepedent (private) schools decreased the drop-out rate because they had a 30% increase in learner numbers from Grade 10 to Grade 12. In previous years, the drop-out % from Grade 10 to Grade 12 was as follows: 2007 – 43%, 2008 – 47%, 2009 – 47%, 2010 – 48%. So it seems that since the implementation of the NSC the drop-out rate in public schools has increased. Also, on average twice as many students drop out after Grade 11 than after Grade 10. The Department will probably say its drive to get students to the FET colleges is working, but it would be a worthwhile research project to investigate what percentage of students at public FET Colleges do not have a Grade 12.

    2. Although the pass rate for Grade 12 has increased every year since 2009, the number of registered Grade 12 learners in public schools has dropped, from 570 849 in 2009, to 543 487 in 2011, to 496 593 in 2011. The total drop is softened by the fact that the number of Grade 12s in independent schools has risen every year.

    3. We picked up a worrying trend in the total learner numbers at school over the last 12 years, and specifically in the Intermediate Phase (Grades 4 to 6). For the various phases of the school system, total learner numbers in public schools have either been decreasing, or are flat, or show a small increase:

    GET Phase (Grades R to 3) public and independent schools

    1999:  3 893 178; 2004: 3 850 660; 2008: 3 715 390; 2011: 3 872 305.  

    Intermediate Phase (Grades 4 to 6) public schools only

    2001: 3 243 894; 2004: 2 839 242; 2008: 3 015 991; 2011: 2 781 641

    Senior Phase (Grades 7 to 9) public schools only

    2001: 2 862 760; 2004 2 906 845; 2008: 2 715 356; 2011: 2 894 881

    Since 2001, the total learner numbers in the GET Phase (all of the above) in public schools have varied between 9.3 million and 9.5 million every single year, without exception.

    FET Phase (Grades 10 to 12) public schools only

    2001: 1 987 854; 2004: 2 321 345; 2008: 2 487 459; 2011: 2 365 010

    So why have our public schools been flatlining over the last 12 years? Shouldn’t we have a corresponding increase in school children related to the increase in population? Surely the increase in private schools cannot make up with the non-increase in learner numbers? I don’t know. In fact, if you compare total learners in public schools from 1999 to 2011, there has been a 2.4% decrease (from 12.1 million to 11.8 million).

    4. The number of public schools in SA has decreased from 26 789 in 1999 to 25 772 in 2004, to 24 751 in 2008, to 24 365 in 2011. Where independent (private) schools made up 3% of all schools in 1999, in 2011 it was nearly 6%. In 2010, income from public schools was R8.6 billion, and from independent schools was R6.4 billion. 60% of public schools are already no-fee schools, and about 86% of all learners in public schools either pay no fees or pay less than R500 per year.

    We probably have 3 education systems: the 2 highlighted by Nic, and the private system which is growing rapidly.

    5. The number of educators in public schools were 348 362 in 2000, 344 408 in 2004, 378 060 in 2008, and 390 074 in 2011. So we have more educators in fewer schools teaching fewer learners than in 1999.

    All stats above are from official departmental reports that can be downloaded from their websites.



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  • #36157

     I went on the department of educations website and had a look at the assessment results i specifically looked at maths. The grade 2 showed a slight drop from the grade 1 maths but there was a significant drop from grade 2 to grade 3 maths and it made me wonder why was going wrong in grade 3 maths.  I downloaded the grade 2 assessments for 2011 & 2012 for maths and first language and was surprised at the level of work the children are assessed on. I am using the assessments as a guideline to teach my grade 2 maths, fun learning at home makes school work easier.  I dont think we as parents are always aware of the volume of work that forms part of the specific grades curriculum, maybe it is time we start viewing the results in terms of what is expected of our children not just in terms of what it looks like as statistics.

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  • #36156

    sylvia hammond

    This discussion has brought out some interesting information – and raises further questions.  Following Des Cross’ input, given the continued correlation between race and university drop out rate, your experience is invaluable.  The question I have is to what extent have the HE institutions been researching what is best practice in schools based on their student intake?  In other words can we identify not only what schools the most successful students come from, but also what best practice does that break down into at the school level? I firmly believe that the race based university drop out rate does not reflect the students’ innate ability, but rather their unpreparedness for the university world. 

    Then Elze raises a good question – what is the policy on retaining students in a grade?  If there is no “hold back” policy, then what is the remediation available?  Surely if a student has not been able to grasp the work at the previous grade unless they get some additional assistance all further years will pass in a blur of incomprehension?

    I’m very skeptical about the percentages as there are so many stages at which they can be affected to achieve a desired outcome but the detailed analysis of how the individual marks are arrived at is fascinating.  I definitely agree with the “Pygmalion effect”.  It is similar to the “wastage allowance” in factories – if you set it at 30% then that will be wasted, if you reduce it down to 5% halleluiah then 5% is what you get.  I would think it makes good sense to keep raising the lower pass percentage by 5% per year.  I’m convinced that would become the new standard each year – and we would have continuous improvement. 

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