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Posted by on Oct 10, 2013 in General | 0 comments

Passonomics is Hindering Quality Education in South Africa

Passonomics is Hindering Quality Education in South Africa

The title of this post probably leaves you with a question in mind. What is “Passonomics”. Well, this is the terminology that I found appropriate to describe a trend embedded in the South African education system. The politics of South Africa have been so deeply engraved in the education system in such a way that the purpose of education is distorted. Each Education minister’s goal has been to get a higher pass rate than the previous, no matter what the cost is. This pressure to ensure that students “pass”, filters down through the ranks from the Minister to the education ministry’s directors, right down to the teachers and students. This focus on “Passing” and the way in which the Ministers’, headmasters’ and teachers’ performance are linked with the pass rates is what I refer to as “Passonomics”. The higher the pass rate a Minister gets during his or her tenure, the more they feel that they have performed and, the more society and government showers them with praises.

On the contrary, the more important element, which is “Learning” has slowly been pushed to the back seat. Government politicians only sing praises for ” Passing” without questioning the important question of whether quality learning has taken place. Government is so obsessed with passing that they accept 30% mark for mathematics as a “Pass”. One wonders, can the word “pass” still be associated with learning? In my opinion, not in our case. To save the value of education in this country, we need to separate and understand the two terms. “Pass(ing)” is a word currently used to describe  whether a student has achieved a certain percentage in a single or collection of learning activities. “Learn(ing)” is the actual process of knowledge acquisition. We need to value “learning” as a society and as government if we want to advance education.

Due to governments Passonomics agenda, certain parts of society have also lost site on “learning” and focused on “passing”. For example, I recall 2 years ago (2010) when we had damaging teacher strikes across the nation, the student body COSAS made a demand of 25% free marks because they had not been attending school. I sympathized with them on the unfortunate issue, but on the free marks demand, I was in dismay. This body, which represents a significant number of SA basic education students, showed a lack of interest in “learning” or acquiring knowledge, instead they showed a high interest in achieving a “pass” mark. This is evidence of Passonomics engrained in our students. We cannot blame COSAS because Passonomics has affected our children’s way of thinking and misplaced their values, priorities and the meaning of education.

Our teachers and headmasters have also been caught up in Passonomics. I do not blame them, it is the message and pressure coming from the top. You will rarely hear a headmaster in government schools asking “Have the students learnt or gained significant knowledge to take them into the future?” If you are a teacher, I am sure you haven’t heard it.  How many times have you heard the headmaster ask “how many students in your class passed? Or “Make sure you raise the pass rate”. Sounds familiar? So the question is, why are headmasters doing this? I could be wrong, but I blame this on Passonimics i.e. Governments linkage of a schools performance to the “pass rates” and thus linking it to funding. Even Civic organizations promoting the “passing” agenda through rewarding schools with high pass rates without a deeper look into the learning aspect. In essence headmasters are under pressure to raise the pass rate of their schools no matter what the cost on quality is. The leaking of exam papers to schools is not at all foreign to South Africa, because the value of passing has risen far higher than the value of learning.

Teachers bare the brunt of Passonimics. Of course we need skilled, responsible and committed teachers in our education system. However, Passonomics has forced teachers to focus more on the pass percentages and less on students’ knowledge acquisition. I have worked in education for only 8 years now, however I have countless testimonies in which teachers have admitted to giving school tests more than 3 times in order to raise the students’ marks. For example, teacher X in grade 10 gives his students a test, whose marks are meant to go on record. Only 10% of the students pass the test. Instead of re-teaching the students, the teacher goes over the test (giving them answers) and tells the student to prepare for the same (exact) test. Then suddenly the students pass rate jumps to 80%, and then teacher X records these marks for his report. Is this a good teacher, or a teacher good at giving the student free marks under the pre – text a second test or second opportunity? A fair way of checking learning in this instance would have been to re-assess the students using a new set of questions related to the same content. However if you think headmasters/mistress are unaware of this practice you are wrong. They simply put a blind eye on it, because we are a nation obsessed with Passonimics, furthermore it reflects high performance on the headmaster’s part if their teachers are achieving high pass rates. As a result, students get high marks which are not a true reflection of what they have learnt. This is evident when they go to University. To summarise, less than half of matriculants who supposedly qualify (according to matric results) for university successfully displayed the required proficiency in academic and quantitative literacy in the National Benchmark Test (NBT). The NBT is a test conducted by universities and other Higher education institutions on first year students that measures the readiness of a student for higher education in South Africa. Food for thought, Passonomics has played a role in the NBT’s sub-standard performance.

So what is the solution to Passonomics? How can we measure learning successfully? A good place to start is de-politicising education. Ministers should not use education as a gambling tool for political points. Let’s try as a nation to bring back and promote the value of learning, not the value of passing. Have a look at a country like Zimbabwe. Although the country’s economics was/is in shambles, they have never let go the value of education. Most Schools there are in dire conditions, however since “learning” is at the top of their agenda, students from those schools excel far beyond most other students from regional wealthier nations. You will never hear of a school being burnt in Zimbabwe, Botswana or Namibia because of service delivery issues. Why, because learning (and education as a whole) is highly valued in those societies and is seen as the only way of fighting poverty successfully.

Once we have de-politicized education and ditched Passonomics, then maybe we can successfully re-attach passing and learning. Let us value learning because Passonomics is infectious in education. It is also creeping into higher education. Just ask employers how they feel about the students they receive from higher education. If we, as higher education practitioners do not put our act together, we will lose our credibility with the industry. If we do not take our teaching and learning practice seriously, we will lose our credibility with society. We are an expensive investment, therefore let’s ensure that we maintain quality and resist governments Passonomics agenda.   I urge all higher education professionals and expert thinkers to come together and propose a University funding model that is not so strictly attached to pass rates and throughput rates.

I wrote this post on Passonomics piece to share my views and I hope to learn from other people’s views on the issue of Passonomics. In closing, solving the Passonomics problem is by no means a panacea to South Africa’s education woes. There are many other major pitfalls and areas of contention that we need to address. I say let’s talk about them, so that hopefully the government listens.

*I first posted this on

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