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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Fifteen years of (mis)education: High rate of matric failure and other stories

Jameson Maluleke - 2009-01-14


This paper seeks to reveal that our education system, for all its being an import and a prestigious system, is neither a sound nor a rewarding system. Fifteen years ago it was proclaimed as the flagship to transform the country’s old education system and to usher our school children into the birth of the new era. Sadly, the much acclaimed system does not only contaminate and corrupt the mind of our young ones, but is also instrumental in promoting abject poverty.

The absence of reading culture amongst our school children, for instance, which is bemoaned by the country at large, has a direct bearing on the high rate of matric failure. If children are not taught good manners, to uphold their own people’s culture or to preserve their country’s fauna and flora in their growing years, they are sure going to be hopeless failures in their adulthood, simple as that. It is beyond all human comprehension to understand why education authorities expect school children who can’t read, write and count to pass their matric examination with flying colours, and the labour market to absorb such unrefined students with ease. School children need to be taught how to read, write and count unless teachers are oblivious of their obligations once they’re in a class situation.

In years gone by, the Bantu Education system used to carve a black man into a useful idiot rather than a learned person. Only exceptional students studied as far as matric, and very few received university education. The rest went down in history as school children who were trained to read danger signs and instructions as befit menial workers. Fifteen years down the line, our education authorities have succeeded only in replacing the name of the previous much hated system with a new imported one.

It is also the aim of this paper to highlight the fact that our education system has no direct link with the industrial environment. In other words, our education system is not designed to equip our school children with life skills necessary for survival, but with an expensive and unnecessary academic education to students who only want to be artisans.


South Africa is the leader of the entire African continent, and an aspiring world leader which boasts world-class universities and much acclaimed research centres. According to South African government information, in 2007 South Africa had 387 000 teachers at schools. This number excluded colleges and university lecturers, doctors and professors, as well as administrators in the Department of Education (DOE). The total number of professionals specifically employed by the Department to prepare children for this harsh world of ours is estimated to be in the region of 500 000.

DOE is one of the departments headed by the learned since 1994, the first one being Professor Sibusiso Bhengu, followed by Professor Kader Asmal and the incumbent Dr Naledi Pandor. These compatriots exude knowledge and understanding of the education system in the country more than anyone else.

Management failure

With such a high number of erudite staff members, one would be forgiven for thinking that DOE is on the verge conquering illiteracy, that children are competent and that they pass their grades in large numbers. The truth is, DOE unashamedly stands side by side with the Department of Home Affair as a typical instance of an administrative failure. School children can’t read, write or count, despite the fact that they are taught by teachers with diplomas and degrees in education.

Speaking at the launch of a foundation learning campaign for the province in Pietermaritzburg in September, KwaZulu-Natal Education MEC Ina Cronjé revealed that a high number of South African pupils - including children in KwaZulu-Natal - in foundation and intermediate phases at school cannot read, write or count. "The education system has taken a bold step in acknowledging that there is a serious problem in respect of literacy and numeracy (in the country) ... Our very own systematic evaluation results indicate that pupils cannot read and write," she said (The Mercury, September 12, 2008).

This revelation is an embarrassment not only to the education authorities, but to all South Africans. Nobody can explain how South Africa leads other African countries if it can’t put its education house in order. Nobody can explain why our highly trained education staff members continue to fail our school children.

What causes the lack of reading culture? Are school children unmanageable because of excessive children’s rights? Are teachers and area managers not doing their work properly? Is it the poor qualification of some teachers or a lack of commitment? Is it because children go to school underfed or the fact that some of them study under a fig tree or marula tree? Does the problem stem from the use of English as medium of instruction rather than the children’s mother tongues? Is the lack of reading culture a world trend incited by globalisation to prevent a black man from breaking loose from the chains of bondage?

The effects of outcomes-based education

The formalisation of a democratic government in 1994 witnessed the introduction of an education system which came to be known as Outcomes-Based Education (OBE). OBE is defined by Wikipedia as a "recurring education reform model. It is a student-centered learning philosophy that focuses on empirically measuring student performance, which are called outcomes. OBE contrasts with traditional education, which primarily focuses on the resources that are available to the student, which are called inputs.”

OBE is an imported education system widely used in developed countries like Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. It was hastily introduced in South Africa without assessing whether it is suited for a country struggling to recover from the ravages of the liberation war.

It was not long before teachers complained that as much as the system is attractive, they could not use it as most schools have no resources or teaching aids. Teachers had attended countless workshops to introduce them to the new education system, but they either found it impractical or they could not understand it. In short, teachers could not implement it in schools. Bhengu reached the end of his term as a minister without being able to implement it.

Education analyst Kobus Maree said that something had to be done to address the scourge of illiterate youngsters. "We can only blame the way outcomes-based education (OBE) was introduced in 1997. OBE itself is not the problem, but the way it came into schools - particularly in poorer schools in the rural and township areas where teachers did not have teaching and learning aids," he said.

Maree said if the problem was not corrected, many youngsters would be negatively affected. He said the only solution, in his opinion, was to give pupils who were battling, an extra year or two at school to catch up, and for the government to make it compulsory for qualified teachers to teach in rural areas for a specific period of time. He said that with education going "full-cycle" into the new curriculum from this year, experts would be able to assess the full impact of outcomes-based education in the country (The Mercury, September 12, 2008}.

When Asmal ascended the departmental throne, he tenderised the OBE by christening it the Revised National Curriculum Statement. Pandor later deleted the term revised and affectionately called it the National Curriculum Statement, yet school children still struggle to read, write and count, and matric results remain unattractive to this day.

This year more 592 000 matric students became the first group of students (the so-called guinea pigs) to write their final examination based on the (in)famous OBE curriculum. The shocking results have proved to all the doubting Thomases that OBE should be dumped in the trash bin. At 66,5 percent, the matric pass rate was slightly higher in 2006 than that of 2007, which was 65,2 percent. Although 2008 results (62,5) cannot be compared with those of the previous years because they are the first harvest of the OBE curriculum, the small percentage difference of 2,7 percent between the 2007 matric results and those of 2008 raises the question: How come students with the history of under-education and miseducation, that is, students who can’t read, write and count, managed to obtain a 62,5 percent matric pass rate? This is too high a percentage for students who can’t read or answer an examination question paper. One cannot rule out the fact that the results might have been doctored – they might have been condoned using students’ year marks to enable them to pass in large numbers.

The hallowed system offers no life skills

The problem with our education system is that it is obsessed with academic training as if all school children want to be professors. There is virtually no link between what a child learns in South African schools and the dynamics of the work place. A child comes out of his/her matric class with 75 percent in Religious Studies to be confronted by advanced technology at work. OBE produces scholars who can’t mend a shoe, paint a storeroom or fix a broken iron. That is, OBE students are no different from illiterate labourers who struggle to survive in a highly advanced industrial environment.

Judging by the conduct and workings of foreign nationals from countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique, one is convinced that education authorities in those countries had virtually managed to discover a useful education system. Although there are no statistics to back my claim, many of these people living in South Africa today are prosperous in that their education has equipped them with life skills to create jobs for themselves rather than to seek for a government job. They are shoemakers, builders, painters, electricians, gardeners, and to a lesser teachers and university lecturers. I doubt if ministers of education in thosse two countries have gone out of their way to import foreign education systems. They used the traditional education system which had been around before them and insisted on having it successfully implemented.

The question is: What stops us from using a home-brewed method to educate our children so that they grow up to be upright and law-abiding citizens of tomorrow? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the DOE is, like all government departments, politicised. DOE has been run by ministers who have also been national executive members of the ruling party since 1994. So our education policy is essentially the ruling party’s version of how it wants our young ones to be nurtured.


I would like to inform our esteemed readers that I have decided not to provide them with answers to the above questions, partly because our educational impasse is a complex problem which requires a multidimensional approach, but chiefly because I am convinced that the education authorities have the right answers. They would have voiced these long time ago had it not been for party politics and want for style which blinded their conscience. Fortunately the new deputy minister of education, Andre Gaum, endowed with the ability to see beyond party politics, is voicing noises of dissatisfaction about OBE. Warning unproductive schools around the country, Gaum urged teachers at primary school level not to neglect numeracy and literacy (City Press, December 21). He said teachers should “teach these in an old fashioned manner."

He said, “This includes going back to basics such as phonetics, allocating reading time during classes, setting comprehension and spelling tests, working on learners’ spelling and vocabulary and multiplication tables. They shouldn’t introduce calculators too soon. Learners must get a sense of numbers.”

Gaum is also in favour of mother-tongue tuition from Grade R to Grade 6. His positive shouts might get swallowed by the hullabaloo of party politics. Nevertheless, fussing won’t help a bit. Leaders like Gaum should be encouraged to see more clearly on one hand. And on the other hand, our education authorities should call for a referendum – asking people to make a choice of education system for their children rather than introduce disastrous foreign education methods.



  • City Press, December 21, 2008
  • Department of Education website for matric results percentages
  • South Africa Yearbook 2007/08 (Editor D Burger, Government Communication and Information System)
  • The Mercury, September 12, 2008
  • Wikipedia