Current matric pass rate exposes the sweet and bitter parts of our education system – Schafer

IMAGE: Willem Law/Independent Media.


Thabo Mohlala and Bonile Khanyi

Matric pass rate is no longer our preoccupation as there are other key indicators to worry about, according to Debbie Schafer, the Western Cape MEC of Education.

In the past few years, the Western Cape Department of Education (WCED) used to take a pole position when it comes to matric pass rates.

It was only relatively recently that it was knocked off the pedestal by Gauteng, and last year by the Free State.

“But it feels good to be number one,” said Schafer, explaining that the department of basic education (DBE) uses different criteria to calculate the performance of provinces.

This includes “retention rate” and “percentage passes in mathematics and science subjects”.

“And if you look at our performance based on this, [then] we were number one last year,” Schafer said.

Retaining learners within the system until they finish grade 12 and producing good passes in maths and science has potential to adequately prepare learners for the rigours of tertiary education.

“If most of your learners drop out between Grade 10 and 12, then the pass rate of those who write the final exams is not a true indication of success,” said Schafer.

She said the current cohort of learners who will be sitting for examinations this year were prepared while they were in grade 10 as part of the WCED’s three-year programme.

Schafer said district teams worked closely with high schools to provide support to learners.

She said preparations “included analysing results per school in great detail to identify strengths and weaknesses per subject in both teaching and learning”.

Schafer said they are shifting their support from learners to teachers with a view to improving “the system as a whole, rather than to rely on short-term, band aid solutions late in the day”.

Her department, she said, has provided every school with a book for every learner called ‘Tips for Success’.

She said the book provides study advice for every subject; a 104-page document with exemplar papers so that learners can practise exams in high enrolment subjects including a QR code-based document that has links to digital revision materials online particularly video.

In addition, she said her department has developed an online-based library of digital resources “housed on the department’s ePortal, which is part of the provincial government’s eLearning Game Changer programme”.

Schafer said they devised a diverse range of strategies to deal with the annual “inward migration”, which unfortunately is not accompanied by “concomitant budget from the national equitable share”.

And this places considerable pressure on the WCED and the schools in the province, she added.

She highlighted other challenges such as poor “economic climate and wage negotiations nationally, which is above the rate of inflation and for which we are not reimbursed”.

To mitigate these challenges, she said they make maximum use of under-utilised schools, building extra classrooms at existing schools; building new schools and erecting temporary schools by using mobile classrooms.

Schafer said they plan their building and maintenance programme in three-year cycles.

And in terms of the current cycle, they will build seven new high schools, six new primary schools 20 replacement schools and the scheduled maintenance at 217 schools.

Schafer said they observed that language constitutes a serious barrier to most learners.

And to address this problem they made it their “number one strategic objective to improve learner performance” in both language and maths.

“These subjects provide the foundation for all learning. You can’t learn any subject if your language skills are poor and most subjects require some knowledge of maths,” said Schafer.

She said they have developed a comprehensive language and maths strategies that focus on people development, including teacher training and teaching methods, monitoring and evaluation, systemic tests, providing resources and facilities including eLearning.

Conducting systemic tests in grades 3, 6 and 9 is one of their other interventions as it provides them with “detailed information on what we need to do to improve language and maths performance as well as to measure progress”.

Schafer defended the controversial “Collaboration Schools Pilot Project” for which she was criticised. She said this was introduced because they “value innovation and collaboration schools provide a good example of this”.

She said the project is but part of the many initiatives that they designed to innovate and improve opportunities for learners in poor communities.

“Collaboration schools bring together funding and expertise from WCED and major education donors in schools that allow greater scope for experimentation than would normally be possible in a normal public school,” said Schafer.

She said the approach ensures better management of the schools by the operating partner who looks after a “fewer schools than a huge department” and this also allows for more individualised attention for learners.

Not only that, Schafer said, the other benefits are “better accountability and teacher development” as well as adding more financial resources that allow for extra staff or social worker.

She said collaboration schools still fall under her department’s ambit, adding that even though it is a pilot “parents have responded enthusiastically to the programme so far and they want it to continue”.

In its criticism of the project, Equal Education, highlighted the fact that the project will exclude learners from poor communities.

EE said the private entities that operate the schools would seek to maximise profit at the expense of poor learners.

EE reiterated again recently that “education is a public good that should be accessible to all regardless of income and should be accountable to the public. EE has consistently advocated against the growth of private, and especially for-profit, actors in the public education sector in South Africa. The introduction of private interests in the public education sector can increase stratification between schools and leave poor children behind in underperforming public schools.”

“No”, said Schaffer, “Collaborations are just one of a range of interventions designed to improve the quality of education in poorer communities. The entire programme is geared almost exclusively towards improving access to quality education in poor communities.”

She said some of the benefits include:

  • teacher training at their in-service training institute
  • daily support by circuit and district teams
  • massive investment in resources, including textbooks
  • new and replacement schools and a
  • comprehensive school maintenance programme.


Schafer says that this project will help improve access to quality education in poor communities and improve performance in underperforming schools.

“Indications are that this project is bringing improved education to poor communities, to which we are absolutely committed. It is thus quite astonishing that some critics who bemoan the inequalities in education, which we agree still exist, continue to oppose this project, which is precisely aimed at addressing those inequalities,” said Schafer.

Schafer said since the Collaboration Schools Pilot began in 5 schools in January 2016 last year, the province now has seven public schools currently operating as collaboration schools, 4 primary and 3 high schools, across 4 of the Western Cape’s districts.

“We are encouraged by the momentum that the initiative is gaining. We have, in fact, had some schools asking to be a part of this project, based on what they have seen thus far,” she said.

Schafer added that the Western Cape Department plans to have doubled the number of collaboration schools by next year.

“We are currently in talks with another three schools that may come on board in 2017 which would bring the total number of collaboration schools to 10. We aim to double this number to include 20 schools in the collaboration schools pilot by 2018,” the statement reads.

In recent weeks, Education Minister Angie Motshekga has requested an urgent meeting with Schafer to halt the proposed changes to “privatise” public schools in the province.

Basic Education Department’s spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga told Inside Education that he cannot comment about the meeting between the Minister and Schafer as yet.

Mhlanga said the minister was expected to meet all the MECs of Education this week on Thursday.



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