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6 November 2020
Matric Exams And The Pandemic: A Lost Generation?
The matric examinations are stressful even at the best of times. But this year, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent lockdown and closing of schools, laid bare the existing well-documented troubles of the South African schooling system, while adding a range of new challenges. 

The 2020 matrics are writing exams under more scrutiny and stress than previous matric classes - and that raises a number of questions about their performance, and their futures. 

What are some of the challenges of the 2020 matric exams?

This year's exams are based on a haphazard schooling year, where the already varied experiences of the different socio-economic classes will be a lot more pronounced as the poor learners experienced the schooling year with more challenges.  Some of those challenges include:
  • Dealing with the differences in the administration of a national examination in very different conditions, where the different provinces experience the pandemic differently and have differentiated capacity to secure a valid and reliable examination.
  • Marking the scripts in a COVID-19 reality.
  • Managing the marks of the expected low performance of many provinces (I expect an artificial upgrade of marks).
  • Learners who will be writing the examination under a plethora of different stressors.

Do education departments have the capacity to deliver a good exam?

We’ll learn that as the exams progress. The confusion on how to approach the schooling system in the months of May and June demonstrated that education stakeholders have different views on 'good' schooling. Certain provinces (eg. Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape) have a long-standing record of underperformance on many levels of education, so I don't see them now suddenly outperforming themselves and doing a good job of preparing learners or delivering a good examination.

How have schools coped with the pandemic?

Lockdown showed the differences in capacity to deliver basic services across the country - and education is no different.  Schools have coped differently with the challenges of the pandemic, eg. some schools switched over to online learning to support learners early in the lockdown, while other schools came to a complete stand-still. We must think about the learners in the deep rural areas, the learners whose parents lost their jobs, the learners who had to take up jobs to support their families, the expectations of families on the learners and therefore the holistic impact of the pandemic on the matrics. There was also much absenteeism from learners as the school year lost its rhythm suddenly and for a long period of time.

What about the education gap between the have and have nots?

This is big - and it’s been the main challenge in our society for a long time. In August 2017 Stats SA purported that 55% (30,4 million) of South Africans earn less than R992 per month. This translates directly into the schooling experience, so most learners live in very poor conditions. At the same time, we have learners who receive a 'first class' education throughout their 12 years of schooling, but they are a small percentage. So most learners do not receive schooling that puts them in good standing for their futures after school. This presents the country with a deepening of economic disparities and is not morally acceptable. 

Are the 2020 matrics a ‘lost generation’?

I would argue that we already have many 'lost' generations of matriculants - our youth unemployment statistics speak for themself. But for 2020, we have many types of losses that have occurred, which will leave deeper challenges on the matrics in terms of  their examination marks and future prospects. And the jury is still out on all the related fall-outs from 2020 on the matrics, other grades and schooling as a whole. So in my view 2020 

What can we do?

I believe that this should be a time to generate political will in South Africa to overhaul our schooling system and demand a better deal for the poor of South Africa. We’ve seen a lot of resilience from teachers and learners in difficult conditions to push through with the school year, despite the challenges.  We can reward them by using this disruption to develop a better - and fairer - education system, that helps our youth build their futures.
Professor Rouaan Maarman is the Deputy Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Education Faculty.