19 January 2022
Equal Education media statement:
A raw deal: Matric class of 2021 seriously hurt by the rotational timetabling system
“My issue was with the amount of work that had to be done due to Grade 11 work being carried into matric. As a slow learner, the exams came at a time when I was not prepared to write” – Grade 12 learner member of Equal Education, KwaZulu-Natal.
Tomorrow, 20 January 2022, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga will announce the matric results for the class of 2021. Equal Education (EE) wishes the class of 2021 the very best for their matric results. We applaud the hard work and time invested by learners, teachers, parents and schools over the last two years to get to this point. This group of matric learners has undoubtedly faced huge hurdles leading up to the final assessment of their schooling journey. When COVID-19 hit South Africa in March 2020, an urgent response was needed by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to protect learners, teachers and the broader school community, leading to schools being closed for extended periods and the introduction of a rotational timetabling system.
That being said, EE strongly urges government to urgently abandon rotational timetables and safely reopen schools for all learners. If our government does not make this happen, we will be confronted with a lost generation of learners. The class of 2021, compared to their 2020 peers, has been more negatively affected by the pandemic. The rotational timetabling system was meant to be a temporary intervention to bring learners back into the classroom and simultaneously reduce the risk of learners and teachers contracting and spreading the virus – but it quickly became the ‘new normal’. Sadly, the consequences of learners not attending school every day have been especially damaging for learners from poor and working class families – those who already experienced a poorly functioning education system. All learners must return to the classroom full-time to protect their learning as well as their mental and physical health.
Between a rock and a hard place
The matric class of 2021 lost more than half of teaching time in their Grade 11 year. This was because schools were closed for long periods and because rotational timetables (where learners only attend school on some days) were implemented when schools reopened. When learners don’t attend school every day, they are more likely to forget some of what they previously learnt, which then makes the possibility of dropping out higher. The impact of these disruptions was in no way equal as learners from disadvantaged backgrounds were particularly affected because their access to printed materials, online learning resources, and other learning interventions was limited. The class of 2021 also suffered when there was a two-week delay to the start of their matric year, following a rise in infections as South Africa battled the second wave of COVID-19.
The severe learning challenges experienced by this group of matrics is well described by Phashe Ntuli, a Grade 12 learner member of EE from Gauteng: “It  was indeed a tough year because we had to go to school three or two times per week. Meaning we couldn’t cover everything during that period. I really struggled in 2020 when I was in pre matric. [I] couldn’t cope with all [the] fear and pressure”.
Xolani Mtshali, a Grade 12 learner member from KwaZulu-Natal explained: “Even though I know there were TV and radio programmes for extra lessons, we do not have a TV at my house and on the radio they concentrated a lot on physics (which I did not study) and because I stay in a rural area people who would be able to help me with certain subjects stay very far from me, so it was difficult”.
The good, the bad and the ugly
For an already fragile education system, COVID-19 made the challenges facing it worse – which put matrics in a very difficult position. The pandemic not only amplified historic inequalities within our schooling system, such as exposing and making worse the impact of education budget cuts, but the closing of schools and the rotational timetable system also deprived learners of essential safety nets such as daily access to school meals (1) and psychosocial support (counselling) at school.
In spite of this, all was not completely lost. Matric learners were in school everyday last year and they were given extra support ahead of the exams. The DBE and provincial education departments (PEDs) provided various catch-up programmes – lessons on TV and radio, digital revision material on mobile apps, online classes and extra study guides and textbooks – that to some extent helped with recovering lost learning time.
Keamogetswe Mosima, a Grade 12 learner member from Limpopo, reflected that even the extra learning support caused some stress: “The most challenging thing was having to come to school even on Saturday and Sunday. We were attending every day from 06h30 to 16h30…they [school] put us under a lot of pressure”.
While extra support was put in place to help matrics prepare for exams, the class of 2021 grappled with several unique challenges that previous matric learners did not face, including load shedding and timetable changes. The 2021 matric group faced blackouts implemented by Eskom, jeopardising their exam preparations. They were also affected by last-minute changes to the examination timetable – to accommodate local government elections, exams started four days earlier, which reduced preparation time and caused more anxiety.
While EE commends the efforts of the DBE and PEDs in supporting the matrics, it is very clear that many of the challenges confronting the sector are a consequence of not urgently fixing longstanding cracks in the system. Government has not ensured that basic education is treated as a key priority, despite saying that it is. When the national budget was tabled in February 2021, then Finance Minister Tito Mboweni revealed the total education budget would be R9 billion less than what was estimated before COVID-19 hit – a significant reduction with serious consequences for schools. EE has consistently highlighted the direct consequences of budget cuts, including overcrowded classrooms, poor school infrastructure, fewer teachers, and learners going without meals.
Some education stakeholders have predicted a decline in this year’s matric results. Whether or not the traditional pass rate improves, it remains a poor indicator of the overall health of the basic education system. The national pass rate does not take into account those learners who leave school before reaching their matric year and provides little insight into the many challenges that confront learners during their schooling career. When we analyse the matric results, other indicators such as the number of Bachelor passes, overall performance trends between different provinces, and the throughput rate (2) provide a more nuanced picture of the results. EE hopes to see an increase in the number of Bachelor passes, particularly from learners in quintile one to three schools.
Call to constitutional duty
While the current quality of education outcomes can be traced back to the schooling system being neglected before COVID-19, a holistic intervention is needed to prevent further deterioration. Government cannot continue to use the pandemic as an excuse for the state of the education system. To ensure that all learners (and future matrics) are given the best possible chance at academic success, EE continues to call for:
- the DBE to develop clear plans to end the rotational timetable system and return all learners across the country to school full-time. The negative effects of prolonged school closures and irregular school attendance (rotation) will be felt for a long time to come, especially for vulnerable learners attending under-resourced schools;
- the DBE to invest in strengthening foundation phase learning, as a schooling system built on a broken foundation cannot survive;
- government to prioritise basic education, with this priority being reflected in national and provincial Treasuries’ funding commitments and government fighting against any fruitless and wasteful expenditure; and
- the DBE and PEDs to fulfil their legal obligations in terms of the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure and to #FixOurSchools so learners and teachers do not have to fight the odds to achieve excellence.
The progress that we have made in improving the quality of education in South Africa will be reversed if these demands are continuously ignored and government consistently fails to meet its legal and moral obligation to learners.
(1) The National School Nutrition Programme is an essential DBE school feeding scheme that provides nutritious meals to the majority of learners in the country’s poorest public schools and to vulnerable learners in fee-paying public schools.
(2) The percentage of pupils who were in Grade 2 together, and who 10 years later, went on to complete matric together.
Note to editors: If quoting directly from this statement, please quote Equal Education or the authors of this statement: Elizabeth Biney (EE Researcher) and Stacey Jacobs (EE Researcher).
To arrange a media interview, contact: Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) firstname.lastname@example.org or 082 924 1352.