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Education in South Africa – matric or bust?

Updated on March 27, 2011

What education?

“Students study to pass, not to know – they do pass and they don't know.” I'm not sure who said that but it fits for me – in most education systems there is far too much emphasis on passing exams and far too little on actually learning.

These thought come up for me every year at about this time (early January) as we go through the blame game and the finger pointing after the almost always dismal “matric” exam results come out.

In South Africa at the end of Grade 12 all learners who have survived the 12 years of schooling face their final hurdle – an externally-set examination which sifts those who have, during the 12 years, learned how to write exams from those who didn't.

South Africa, since the advent of democracy in 1994, has spent millions of rands on developing a new, outcomes-based curriculum. The national budget allocates proportionately more on education than almost any other country in the world. School attendance has risen dramatically in the past few years. Vast resources are spent on upgrading the skills of teachers.

And yet – every year fewer learners pass the dreaded matric, and every year there is a witch hunt, a desperate search for scapegoats to carry the blame for the dismal performance.

The annual ritual - learners anxiously scan the newspaper for their results. Photo: Pretoria News
The annual ritual - learners anxiously scan the newspaper for their results. Photo: Pretoria News

Why the matric exam?

The problem with this is that the matric exam plays a major role in university entrance as well as in the job market. So the impression is that if you don't get a good matric pass, you don't have much of a future – you can't get into university and any employer will pass you over for someone who has a better matric.

There is such pressure on learners at the end of each year as the matric exams loom that many commit suicide rather than risk failure. Others simply drop out of school altogether out of a sense of hopelessness.

Of course there are two deadly fallacies that play themselves out here:

  1. There is the assumption that the matric exam results reflect accurately the learner's ability. As I alluded to above, what it reflects is the learner's ability to write an exam, not necessarily what the learner can do or what the learner knows.

  2. There is an assumption that a university education is a good thing for everyone. That somehow having a degree confers some special aura, some special abilities, on the person lucky enough to have one.

The High School at Blythswood was housed in these rondavels
The High School at Blythswood was housed in these rondavels

OBE Curriculum not the cause of poor education

To properly put an OBE curriculum in place requires that the teachers should be specially trained and have all the resources needed to facilitate such learning. And the emphasis should be on learning and not on teaching.

What I mean about resources is that all schools should have, for example, a decent library. How do you get children to love reading and books if their school does not have a library? In South Africa currently almost 80% of schools have no library.

This is a legacy of the apartheid past, but there is absolutely no reason why it should remain the situation.

When my father Murray McGregor was appointed Headmaster at Blythswood Institution in the former Transkei just before World War II he set about, with his usual energy, building up the library of the school, buying books when the funds were available, begging from publishers and book sellers when there were no funds, and raising funds for books in any way he could.

By the time Bantu Education took over the school in 1955 it had a fine library stocked with hundreds of books looked after by library monitors and well-used by the learners.

Soon after Bantu Education took over a new Headmaster was appointed (my father had been put in charge of the whole institution) who, as a good Nationalist Party member, did not believe that blacks had any need for books. After all, the “architect of apartheid”, Dr H.F. Verwoerd, had said in Parliament the year before: “Until now he (the black man) has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and mislead him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze.”

So the new Headmaster, to ensure that none of the learners got to see any of the “green pastures” in which they were “not allowed to graze,” had a large hole dug and all the books of the school library were thrown into the pit and buried.

Now one of the criticisms of education is South Africa, a criticism often blamed on the OBE curriculum, is that learners at the end of their schooling cannot read. How on earth can people be expected to appreciate the joys of reading when there is precious little for them to read.

Equal Education - a right for all?

An NGO in South Africa called Equal Education is running a campaign to increase the number and quality of school libraries. I believe that every school should have a well-stocked and well-run library. It is a basic right for all to get a decent education, which includes having access to all that books and reading can offer.

The depressing realities of this situation in South Africa are highlighted on on the NGO's website:

  • Only 7% of public schools in South Africa have functional libraries of any kind. (Department of Education’s 2007 NEIMS Report.)

  • These 7% of public schools that have libraries are the former model-C schools who are able to establish libraries and employ librarians through their own funds, collected through fees.

  • Since 1997 the DoE has produced 6 drafts of a national school libraries policy. None have been adopted as official policy.

  • The DoE offers no specialists school librarian posts. All posts are for teachers, and most schools cannot spare a teacher to run the library because of high learner:teacher ratios.

  • The DoE closed its School Libraries Unit in 2002.

  • In November 2008 the DoE published for comment ‘National Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure’ which, in tables 15 and 18 states that every large primary school and every large secondary school should have a library of 80m2. The regulations still remain unconfirmed by the Minister and therefore are of no assistance to teachers, learners or education planners. -

These facts highlight another horrible anomaly in South African education. Schools in former white areas, the so-called “Model-C schools”, are able to charge school fees and supplement teachers' salaries and buy extra resources with the monies thus raised. Schools in black urban areas and in the rural areas have to make do with the little finding they receive from the DoE, and with the quality of teachers attracted by the Department's salary scales.

I believe that this situation should be changed urgently. No school should be able to offer higher quality education simply because the parents of the learners are able to afford more. This simply entrenches the divide created by apartheid. We will never have anything approaching an equitable and just society while the divisions are maintained in this way.

For example, in 2006 a standard literacy test was conducted in all schools in the Western Cape. Model-C school learners achieved an 82.9% pass rate while in former coloured (mixed-race, in the old classification system) schools the rate was 26.6% and in black schools 3.7%. This is shocking in a country in which we are struggling to eradicate racism and entrench democracy.

The head of Equal Education's Campaign Department, Lukhanyo Mangona, published an excellent article in the Pretoria News of 6 January in which he made a passionate plea for government to rethink its priorities in education in order to provide more libraries so an to encourage a culture of reading. As he points out, “Education is a right.” But it a right that not many can access due to the unequal distribution of educational resources.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009


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    • profile image

      Geoffrey Kasanvu 

      7 years ago

      Much the meaning of Education is changing to mear passing of exams which is done through copying, I think there is a pertinent need for us not continue embrace this but instead craft approaches that can restore the true meaning of education.

      I am a teacher by profession and now working as a Consultant in my

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Why do we finish school? Because we are told to. Is it really that simple? It is an easy question but the answer seems very redundant. Pointing fingers is most probably the easiest route to take, but who says that there is not some ounce of truth to this. My finger goes to the education system, the parents and the children. No use only pointing with no possible solution to it.

      The education system makes no effort in expressing what awaits those that finish school. Children that finish school have no idea what the real world is like. It is grey dark and very competitive. Parents do not help either. How many parents shield their children from the real world. How hard it is to find a job without any "quality" education, no job experience and even harder to keep that job. Children lack the understanding of what fears and untruths that await them when they have finished their 12 years of education. I have talked to some people that decides who gets the job and they made a valid point in that some further education institutions give children the false idea that with their diploma they can just walk into a job interview and that piece of paper will guarantee them a job with open arms.

      It is very nice if you have access to a library, but just having access does not mean they will use it. You can have thousands of books that only collect dust. With no interest or reason to visit these sites of knowledge, we can not hope for improvement. When i was in school, we had a library and I can count on both hands the amount of times I actually entered it. After school I learned the joys of reading and how it has developed my mind and creative process.

      My last piece of light I want to direct to is the government itself. When the metric results were released in 2011 the news said that those that finished school should rather consider starting their own business, since it would hold more success than trying to find a job. Which bank will give someone that just finished school a substantial loan to start such a business. Yes the parents can apply for this loan, but if you consider that 1 in 10 small businesses actually survive the first 6 months, what kind of advice are they getting. 9 out of 10 families will suffer from loans that will put even more strain on the current economy.

    • Chris Eddy111 profile image

      Chris Eddy111 

      9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Tony what is Bantu Education? I guess the lines across getting a good education are still entrenched. So it goes, because if you can't get a good education then you're doomed especially if you're Black.

      This is a good, informative hub. Yet it makes me sad though. I hope that there will be changes soon.

    • profile image

      Nevermore Sithole 

      9 years ago

      Development of a reading culture is paramount to the development of lifelong learning and information literacy therefore critical evaluation of students should also focus on knowledge retention.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      James - thanks for your comment. I doubt the gap in the US is anything like the gap in South Africa. My point is that the government is looking in the wrong places to address the gap. While the physical plant of schools is important, and it is a scandal that so many children here have to learn under trees, the issues of teacher upgrading and the provision of learning resources is far more important.

      SOBF - thanks of the comment. Grading is a great problem in education. I once read of an experiment in which a set of exam scripts were duplicated and one set was handed to experienced markers to mark, the other was taken in a bunch to the top of some stairs and allowed to slide down the stairs. Those that remained near the top were given high marks, those at the bottom very low marks. The two sets of marks were then compared and the correlation was higher than could be explained by chance or coincidence! Fascinating.

      Thanks again to both of you

      Love and peace


    • SOBF profile image


      9 years ago from New York, NY

      Tony, excellent hub - it seems that the problems within the educational system is a universal one and not unique to South Africa. In the US schools are now graded based on the grades of students, requiring teachers to teach for exams.

      James - It means that many teachers in our school system enter with the same stereotypical views you have. LOL!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      In America, billions have been spent to narrow the results gap among races and everybody has a fine library available but a wide gap persists nonetheless. But the black kids can run faster, jump higher, and dance better despite the best athletic (and dance) training available for the white kids. I wonder what it all means?

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Dame, Aziz, Makiwa - thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. The Minister of Basic Education has appointed a task team to come up with a plan to improve matric results. The plan is to be presented to her by the end of February. I'm not holding my breath for any real improvement though.

      Love and peace


    • Makiwa profile image

      Judy Witt 

      9 years ago from Australia

      In Australia we have kids passing their HSC (year 12)but can not spell, read or write. They are arogant and do not think that an education is important. How tragic that children who value an education do not have the resources available to them. I visited a 'location' school at Kenton at Sea in the Eastern Cape a few years back and was proudly shown the school and the new library. I was horrified to see that the shelves were empty - no books. I was told that the grant to build the school library did not include books.

    • aziz908 profile image


      9 years ago from saudi

      Great articles

      I hope to visit my articles

      Thank you very much

    • Dame Scribe profile image

      Dame Scribe 

      9 years ago from Canada

      It is heart-breaking to hear of the lack of support to educate the future generation and so much emphasis on such a test. Great article! :)

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks everyone for your comments - I appreciate them very much indeed!

      Just today I read in the newspaper of another learner committing suicide - because she failed the stupid exam. Dear heaven, I just don't know why we carry on with this ridiculous situation. The exam is built up to be so important and it really is not worth a life, for goodness sake!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      Love and peace


    • bingskee profile image


      9 years ago from Quezon City, Philippines

      “Students study to pass, not to know – they do pass and they don't know.” sad fact but true.

      i dont know if i have to be relieved that these things are not only happening in the Philippines, but what is there to be relieved about? for students from anywhere in the world to be deprived of the best education that they have to receive is truly depressing.

      hayyy... maybe this is the reason why my son chose education as his college course - to be of help (in any way) for the alleviation of the present educational situation.

    • cameciob profile image


      9 years ago

      Very interesting article. I’m very sorry about the students that commit suicide. Cannot imagine the pressure. It is also sad that schools don’t have books …the basic for education. Here in US you can find almost every book you want but they are very expensive. College students don’t afford them. It is said that 70 percent of college tuition is spent on textbooks (which are not great at all, in my opinion). When I was in school, in my country, the textbooks were free, provided by school.

      If every adult american would donate a book, there would be over 100.millions of books for South African schools.

    • Mit Kroy profile image

      Mit Kroy 

      9 years ago from Georgia,USA

      Great article as usual Tony. Here in the states we have libraries all around us. I know of four within fifteen miles of me. It's a shame that resources are not provided for people to get an education that want that opportunity. It's unfortunate to have them and there not be an interest in them, especially when more emphasis is given to passing tests instead of retaining knowledge.

      More and more here in our schools, the teachers seem to be more concerned with the score outcomes of a yearly battery of tests than the skill and thinking processes of the students. I don't think all blame lies with them, but the systems that employs them. Some where along the way, things have changed. When I was in grade school, I had teachers that weren't interested if I knew the right answer to a problem, they wanted to know how I arrived with it.

      Keep on hubbing!

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 

      9 years ago

      The focus here should be placed on the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter with a pass or fail grade result.

    • myawn profile image


      9 years ago from Florida

      I was a substitute teacher and a pre-school teacher I know books are something all students should have access to. I encourage all children not to quit school. The learning opportunity should be equal for everyone. The children are our future. Very moving and motivated article.

    • hafeezrm profile image


      9 years ago from Pakistan

      I fully agree with the quote “Students study to pass, not to know – they do pass and they don't know.”

      I teach at university level. Everyone is worried about grades and not knowledge.

      But the students are not to be blamed. Instead of taking entry-tests for jobs, the recruiters rely on grades and sometime clearly say in their ads: "Those with C-Grade or GPA below 2.5 need not apply."

      There is need to change the corporate culture.


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