Nellie Zembe, Subject Matter Expert, Child and Youth Development Programme, Afrika Tikkun
This year’s Matric results were record-breaking. However, in addition to leaving our boys behind, we are losing a mass of nameless, faceless learners along the way
The 2019 Matric pass rate of 81.3% is a major achievement, particularly for learners compelled to perform within an education system beleaguered by funding shortages, capacity issues and poor infrastructure. A mere four years ago, in 2015, the country grappled with a Matric pass rate of 70.7% and 60.6% a decade ago. Hence, while the quality of the passes still a pressing issue, the improvement in performance is evidence that the various public, non-governmental and private sector initiatives to improve educational outcomes are finally bearing fruit.
However, analysis of the Matric results highlighted a number of issues that, if not addressed with some urgency, can lead to a disturbing trend in coming years. This year saw 57 579 more girls than boys writing the NSC examinations, while 63.8% and 36.3% of the 156 884 distinctions attained were done by female and male candidates respectively. It is clear that, at some level, boys are being left behind. We touched on this topic in our opinion piece on the 2019 International Day of the Girl Child, advocating for the importance of holistically educating both boys and girls about gender norms.
The energy with which the feminist movement and gender activism took off in South Africa in the last few decades should be applauded as it was and is necessary. South Africa’s long road to democracy saw the issue of gender equality relegated to the periphery as national and racial unity were paramount concerns. Recognising the importance of integrating gender equality into the democratic process, coupled with the high levels of gender-based violence and discrimination, means that concerted efforts to level the playing field need to continue. However, coming to grips with how gender norms, cultural attitudes and beliefs and social ills (including violence) impacts on boys and men is only now being properly understood and appreciated.
South Africa has made significant strides in regards to developing gender equality policy and frameworks. These include the establishment of the Girls and Boys Education Movement as early as 2003 in collaboration with UNICEF and Save the Children. There have also been efforts to mainstream gender equality into educational policies and recognise how interventions may affect girls and boys differently. However, with the publication of this year’s Matric results, it is clear that there are critical issues relating to boys that we continue to miss.
The underperformance of boys in education is also evident in developed countries. Therefore, in addition to national and regional initiatives, we can also look to other countries for good practices. For example, the UK launched the UK’s Men and Boy’s Coalition in 2016 which currently focuses on the underachievement of boys in education. The OECD’s 2015 publication, “The ABC of Gender Equality in Education”, contains a number of recommendations to better reach male learners, although it does caution that there is still a lack of robust evidence on what really works. Some of the considerations in the report include working with teachers to identify their own gender biases, and finding alternatives to punishment for poor performance or behaviour, particularly as exclusion is often gendered. Schools could also consider developing learning methods that appeal to boys, allowing healthy competition in the classroom and working to make school transitions (from primary to secondary) smoother and more flexible.
Where have half our learners gone?
The other worrying issue emerging from this year’s Matric results is the high dropout rate within the system. For every 100 learners that began school in Grade 1 in 2008, only 52% wrote Matric exams, 42% passed and 19% earned a Bachelors Pass to enter university. To what and whom are we losing this vast number of young people is unclear. While some may opt to leave school in grade 9 and pursue technical subjects, apprenticeships or income-earning activities, there is also teenage pregnancy, household poverty, and mental health problems to consider. Not to mention those learners that were unable to cope with the academic requirements and simply slipped through the system. This is why one of the key pillars in our education programmes at Afrika Tikkun is close engagement with parents and communities, and Ubuntu one of our five values. Whilst we need to strengthen the responsive nature of our education system and improve retention rate, we must strengthen our social and community networks to notice and reach out to the learners floundering amid academic and non-academic challenges.