Defending Mediocrity: Examiners and their Apologists in South Africa

Excuse me while I rant a bit…

In South Africa, there are two alternative examination authorities: those set under the auspices of the Government (the National Senior Certificate – NSC) and those set by an Independent Examinations Board (the IEB). While the NSC authorities do make some attempts at setting and maintain good standards, the IEB papers are just of a different, much higher quality altogether. And the gap seems to be growing larger each year.

What’s worse is that the IEB exams tend to be written by the wealthier schools, and the NSC by the poorer ones. (There are exceptions on both sides, but the general trend holds true.) This has led to a great deal of subtly expressed resentment, distrust and partisanship by teachers on both sides. Furthermore, it is my contention that this divergence in standards reinforces the socio-economic divide evident in this country two decades after apartheid. Those who pass with an IEB qualification seem more like to get into, and thrive at university, and are thus more likely to find higher paying jobs – which means they will send their own kids to a private school. As the quality of these exams continues to diverge, this ‘academic apartheid’ only seems to be getting more entrenched.

Because both of the exams provide school-leaving qualifications, they very much dictate the manner in which individual subjects are taught. The IEB favours higher order cognitive aptitudes such as the ability to synthesize information and evaluate arguments, whereas the NSC (despite lip service to the contrary) mostly tests the lower to middle range of cognitive skills (recall, explanation and analysis). This has a trickle-down effect, so that most of the high school grades are taught in the same manner as the Grade 12s. More than anything else, this is what causes the two systems to be so different. The IEB aims to produce independent thinkers, the NSC aims to produce automatons who can take instruction and memorize well. Surely it is not too far of a leap to extrapolate the kinds of citizens which will emerge from both of these systems later in life…

But what is the real cause of this divide? Is it an uneven distribution of resources? Is it a lack of teacher training? Is it politics and / or historical imbalances? Or is it because government exams are aimed at a ‘lower common denominator’? My suggestion as to the leading cause of the growing gulf between the government and independent examinations is simply this: inept and unaccountable NSC examination panels. And what makes it worse is that when these officials are questioned, just about the entire government ‘side’ rushes in to defend them. Teachers who themselves are slowly watching as the quality of examinations erodes, form a laager to protect ‘their’ examiners.

Like our politics, the whole thing resembles a soccer match more than a matter of academic standards, where who you support is more important than how well they play. Partisanship eclipses the real issues. My suspicion is that these teachers defend their examiners because they have created so many excuses for their own mediocrity. Any accusations of ineptitude in others prods their own consciences a little too uncomfortably. This and the fact that ‘teaching content’ is just so much easier for so many teachers (who prefer not to challenge themselves to change to a more relevant, child-centered methodology based on twenty-first century skills).

And we wonder why our education system has not led the charge to a more equitable, successful nation…


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