Monday, June 9, 2014

Mediocre Matrics

Concern is about much more than maths and science.

The educational authorities’ response to the World Economic Forum survey on the parlous state of South Africa’s maths and science education (see full report here) is missing a crucial point.

Those surveyed represented business interests and, according to the Education Department, their views were not based on proper scientific research. What is being missed is that the group surveyed reflect market needs that ultimately create opportunities for those seeking gainful employment. Even graduates today are not guaranteed of suitable employment simply on the basis of a certificate.

But there are deeper issues at stake in the conventional understanding of the so-called labour “market” which is a predominant force in not only commoditising people and their skills, but in creating flawed attitudes and behaviours that ultimately do very little to unleash the best of the human spirit. In South Africa in particular, this must be seen in a rather bizarre context that has been developing in the last few decades.

A prime example was contained in a statement earlier this year, by Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande. Defending the 30% pass requirement for three out of six subjects needed to pass matric, he expressed concern that young people would miss out on post-school education opportunities if it was raised and that South Africa “was becoming a dangerously elitist country if it was considering throwing away half of our young people who did not achieve a 50% matric pass”.

Despite these emotional outpourings, there are many detractors from the shifting of the matric pass goal posts, including leading academics such as University of the Free State Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Jansen. They prefer a pass mark of 50%, which City Press recently estimated would have led to only 24% passing the grade, and not the 78% so widely celebrated at the beginning of the year.

There is of course, a stark irony built into the lower pass mark requirement and that is the automatic division between “worthy” achievers and those “less worthy” – in effect an “elite matric” and a “common matric”. And that has nothing to do with “elitism” but simply a natural assessment of the value of the certificate itself.

It should come as no surprise that already the employability of matriculants has been affected by the lower pass mark. SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Pietman Roos says: “the matric certificate should be a fundamental signal to the labour market that a school leaver can perform in at least a low-skilled position. The business community has reported a growing number of ill-equipped school leavers.” This is the real significance of the WEF survey.

There is a well-known sketch libertarians love to trot out in anti-socialist rhetoric that has a Professor in a class deducting points from high achievers and giving them to the lower achievers in some form of academic egalitarianism. In the next tests, the high achievers put in less effort because they know they are going to have points deducted and the low achievers also do less because they know they are going to get free points from their better performing peers. So the whole standard drops and in time the entire class is submerged in dismal mediocrity.

The logic seems unassailable except for one thing: the true nature of the human spirit.

We are much more than certificate chasers. There is also our natural curiosity and hunger in the pursuit of knowledge. There is also the desire to equip ourselves with the means and ability to do something meaningful with our lives and make a difference to those around us.

Certificates, pass marks, and grades speak only in a small measure to having the means and ability. They say absolutely nothing about the most important element of all, and that is willingness. Willingness is the ultimate and essential ingredient of true empowerment.

This crucial factor is constantly missed in all the debate, including those who defend the lower pass mark and those who want a higher proof of achievement; as well as in the incessant blabber about skills development and our state of education. The system appears to be more certificates focussed than empowerment focussed. Most employee assessors in companies are ill-equipped to gauge this attribute in applicants. Indeed most applicants themselves see this attribute as secondary if not insignificant in relation to certificates. It immediately instils a sense of entitlement. As a matriculant remarked in one of those infernal TV “vox-pops”: “Now that I have a matric, they must not expect me to clean toilets.”

I am sure we all know of many potentially high achievers who were overlooked for a certain position that was filled by someone with “the right papers”, where the latter eventually proved to be of little or no use. Then there is the number of brilliant achievers in their field who failed quite dismally at their academic pursuits.

There is no easy answer in unleashing the true human potential that lies beneath all of the “paper requirements”. In a small measure, Nzimande has a point that those who do not pass matric should not be overlooked and be consigned to a human wasteland. But the answer cannot be in reducing the requirement for a piece of paper. That alone reflects an “elitist” pre-occupation with that piece of paper.

Perhaps the answer lies more in identifying impediments to willingness and exploring those hindrances to opportunities that exist in our elitist labour laws, the demise of the self-help principle, unrealistic expectations and the pervasive sense of entitlement.

Willingness can only be inspired by a deep desire to make a difference, of adding value to others lives, and of giving rather than getting. That’s not something a certificate can ever show.

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