Pupils ‘culled’ to improve pass rates

THOUSANDS of Eastern Cape high school pupils are being “culled” by principals desperate to improve their matric pass rate. While the Eastern Cape’s 58.1% matric pass rate last year made for sombre reading, the real story of the thousands of pupils who fall by the wayside during their school career is far more shocking.

Figures supplied by the Education Department show that a Grade 1 pupil only has a 35% chance of matriculating.

However, even more shocking is the sharp drop-off of pupils in Grade 11. According to the figures, a Grade 11 pupil in the Eastern Cape has only about a 32% chance of passing matric.

This is largely due to a process of culling in which principals encourage poorly performing pupils to drop out of school due to pressure from the department to improve the school’s matric pass rate.

These pupils are either pushed out of school or registered as part-time candidates before the exams start.

Principals hold back their risky candidates by either failing them deliberately or encouraging them to drop out.

Six Port Elizabeth principals, who did not want to be named, confirmed pupils were “culled” to improve the matric pass rate.

Port Elizabeth district director Nyathi Ntsiko said the dropout rate was a worrying trend. He said if the full contingent of Grade 11 pupils wrote the matric exams last year, the pass rate for the district could have been halved.

“With the huge dropout rates, the matric pass rate goes up.”

Ntsiko said there were rumours about culling in the Port Elizabeth district, but they were hard to prove.

“There really is a slim chance that the [culled] pupils would have passed.”

JET Education Services senior researcher Dr Nick Taylor said when a school’s reputation rested on a single number, principals were tempted to tweak the figures, “even if this results in prejudicing their own learners”.

JET is an independent, non-profit organisation that works with the government, the private sector, international development agencies and education institutions to improve the quality of education in South Africa.

Taylor said pupils were even screened by school staff at the end of Grade 11, resulting in the drop in school enrolment.

“There is evidence that this is happening on a large scale where matric numbers are manipulated to look better,” he said.

Independent education analyst Susan van Rensburg said: “Some schools see the pupil is battling, so they keep that pupil from progressing because it would negatively impact on the pass rate.”

A former principal said: “I got wind of this practice in teaching circles and it’s something that is happening, particularly in [township] schools.”

He blamed this on principals’ obsession with obtaining great results and maintaining a good reputation.

“It is dangerous and highly detrimental to pupils,” he said.

But while Edu-College principal Kevin Watson confirmed the culling practice, he said it had only been used in the past.

“It is very difficult to get away with it today because of the current regulations and early registration of pupils from Grade 10,” he said.

But another principal said it was a wellused practice, openly discussed at some department meetings.

Provincial Education Department spokesman Loyiso Pulumani said that while there was “empirical evidence” pointing to the high dropout rate from Grade 10 onwards, “we don’t know of any concrete examples of this [culling] practice”.

He admitted some “systemic and structural challenges”, like the widening knowledge gap, led to the enormous dropout rate.

“The reality is that we can never have a meaningful improvement in matric without focusing on the lower grades,” he said.

The Herald spoke to several school dropouts. Although none said they had been directly pressured to leave, some felt they had not received support from their teachers.

Songezo Peter, 22, chose not to return to Kwazakhele High School at the beginning of last year after failing Grade 11 for the second time.

“I got tired of always failing so [I] just didn’t go back and my results wouldn’t have got me a bursary for college anyway, so I just sat around,” he said.

Peter does odd jobs, from painting to washing cars. “It’s mainly contracts and the job is done in three or four months. I’m struggling without a matric.”

Luyanda Mnyanda, 32, left Loyiso High School in the middle of Grade 10 because he was battling to cope.

Now working at a car wash near Kwazakhele’s Njoli Square, he said he had been transferred to another class with completely different subjects at the start of Grade 10.

“I battled a lot. There was no support from the school to help me get through those subjects or to put me back in my previous class where I did commercial subjects, which I was more comfortable with.

“I would have loved to complete school, but honestly I had no chance,” he said.

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