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Why matric is important By Graeme Bloch

5 January 2012

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(visiting adjunct Professor, School of Public and Development Management, Wits University).

The simple reply on why matric is important, is to look at the debate the results have kicked off on where our education system is going and why education is important to the nation. Secondly, of course, matric is the gateway to further study and is indeed an indicator of success at the end of the school system.

Sure, matric doesn’t measure values, good citizenship, commitment to fellow South Africans or a desire to end unsustainable inequalities, nor does it indicate sporting or musical prowess, perhaps more likely to create employment these days. We surely have to stop blaming those who have achieved, individuals who did work hard, for the real failures in quality throughout the school and education systems.?

Well done to those who achieved, and to their families and teachers for support and guidance.

What about ‘mediocrity’ ? All matriculants will struggle to get employment. Matric is not a high enough qualification; even university is not the be-all for high-level skills and employment. But engineers are returning from Australia , London and Doha due to the world economic fall out, and jobs are scarce worldwide. Even an educated population would not find employment – so when SACCI and other businessmen ‘blame’ poor education, I wonder if they are rather avoiding a debate on lousy performance of the economy and the limits of the market. It is nicer to criticize the real vacuums in skills than cut bankers’ bonuses.

More than that. There have been attacks on universities for using ‘race’ to shift the demographics of university entry. Yet why does business struggle to develop other criteria for employment access, why moan rather than develop alternatives, why do they so often not encourage first-time employment of bright school or university graduates, and rather play the blame game?

Where mentoring is entered into in good spirit, corporates are always pleased to find a real number of bright, committed and often black youngsters and grow their loyalty to the company. It can be done, even as schooling should indeed become a more accurate differentiator. It is not a white or black issue, there are plenty of achievers of all races who deserve better.

Yes, we must strive for excellence and not be afraid to say that not all are cut out for academic streams. The rhetoric of ‘vocationalism’ or the need for plumbers, will take meaning when there are a properly functioning FET College system and real alternatives for young people. How about a real second chance for the half of kids who don’t even get to matric? Similarly, what are poorly trained teachers meant to do – drop out, give up, stop teaching? Obviously, raise their real knowledge (there is enough certification around) and get rid of dead wood, as a start. Import teachers, if they are lying around overseas and can contribute, but train better too.

Chucking vast numbers more of young people out of school, stopping their access to university, in the false name of ‘raising standards’, will not help. I am with Director General Soobrayan when he shows that the old Senior Certificate also allowed you through with 33% passes and insufficient subjects or averages – things have not got worse, quality has not dropped just because we are in the era of mass education.

Hear what the experts in Umalusi say. Look at the numbers who currently fail to meet the standards we set. And don’t employ those who just scraped through, there are already enough others with good marks who can’t get jobs or pay their way at tertiary.

Maybe a debate is required. But don’t persist with urban legends. For example, Bantu Education was not better. Under Verwoerd, then Vorster, only a quarter of kids even got to high school at all. I am sure 50% at matric today is not good enough. In our day you could get away with control and mediocrity, but a globalised world now demands excellence.

So where to? Partnerships: all stakeholders coming on boards. Communities and parents working with teachers and principals. NGO’s being allowed to play their part and develop creative and meaningful alternatives. Unions that are part of the solution. Better management, including politicians and officials, as well as principals. A focus on foundations, right from the crèche. There is tons of work to be done – let no one get off the hook, but we all have to knuckle down and do what is required.

Education is too important to play games, to lay blame where it shouldn’t be, to leave it up to others including the professionals we pay. Let us agree on where we are going, and work to get there.