In less than 3 months matriculates are going to be writing their National Senior Certificate examinations. Currently, most of the things we are reading about online and in newspapers is how important it is for schools across all provinces to obtain a higher pass rate in their final examinations. Each province has to do better than the other and for the pass rate to be better than the previous year. There are preparations put in place for extra classes, academic activities and programmes to push the learners and increase the numbers of the pass rate.

In South Africa completing and passing your matric year is considered an important achievement. It provides an individual with opportunities that are related to access; employment, college, a trade and university. Obtaining that matric certificate is a demonstration of successful completion of our school system. A poor pass rate is not just a problem for the skills of these learners but an outcome that reflects the poor state of our basic education system.

Increasingly, focus is solely directed on how well the performance numbers need to be in the final examinations. Pressure is for these learners to do well in all their subjects and obtain good marks. They are being pressured by internal and external forces to focus and be prepared. However, there are no mentions of all the challenges and obstacles that underlie all the hard work that they need to produce at the end of the year. There is the Education Department, the schools, the teachers, parents, society and pressure from themselves and peers. But, is this the only aspect of their lives that needs to be focused on?

More than anything, they need support and an enabling environment more than pressure to produce good results. In addition, the focus should also be directed to the underlying challenges in producing the good results in these exams. Focus needs to be directed to how these learners achieve the outcomes set out for them and the actual learning of knowledge and content, not just the ability to pass an exam. We need to understand that as a learner, there are subjects one likes and doesn’t; there are subjects we have natural inclinations towards and others we are put off by, often because of first exposure through teachers’ skill level. Or the content is taught in a way that ignored a child’s natural curiosity for covering a breadth of content, or the style of pedagogy doesn’t fit the learner. One would find that a learner concentrates and puts much effort on a subject he or she likes. In many other cases it is because one doesn’t understand the work or there was too much content to study and limited time.

 Many of these learners come from marginalized groups and unfavourable conditions. There are a lot of Black and Coloured learners that live in poor areas and do not have enough resources to study. Many of these learners come from families that cannot afford private tutoring or have other means of support system other than the school. The fact that the learners’ success is often predicted on private tutoring is half the problem. Some learners have long commutes, many family responsibilities and additional home circumstances that limit their time to study. Some parents also tend to think that we have enough time at school to learn and do our school work. When we come home and want to study there is limited support in this regard especially where parents haven’t finished school themselves. Some learners cannot also afford to attend afternoon classes as their parents are not keen on these late hours and commuting becomes more difficult.

Then we ask, what can be done to support these learners. The pressure for them to work hard and obtain good marks is not assisting the situation. It only puts pressure on them and later stress. Many of these learners go into the exam rooms unprepared and uncertain of how well they are going to do. And they are also dealing with challenges they face back home.

Support should be available at all levels. There should be at least measures put in place that assess and ensure that learners are comfortable enough to write the final exams. There can also be assessments done on the conditions in which they live and study in at home. They might need support from their parents or families to offload some of their responsibilities at home to make time for their books. And support from teachers to engage and teach in ways that take these circumstances into account. All these measures could assist in minimising the risk of pressure, stress on them and even failure.

All these challenges and issues other than how they do on their school work are often overlooked. All external and internal forces should work together to assist these learners by giving support in deeper issues affecting the learners school work. Instead of saying we have a weak education system or the learners weren’t prepared enough, exploring other factors might improve their progress. I am sure the goal of an education system, especially on matric learners, is for them to progress successfully and equip them with knowledge. But, how they do this and their wellbeing is also important.

Caroline Hlekiso is an intern within the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She holds a BA Honours graduate from the University of the Western Cape in Development studies and calls herself a social scientist in the making.