The Department of Education has called on South Africans to take a chill pill and try to understand the rationale behind the decision to drop the pass mark for Mathematics to 20% for 2016.
Departmental spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the department considered a lot of factors before deciding on the drop.
"In 2014 we set the pass requirements at 50% home language and Maths at 40%. What happened was that the other subjects would be passed and the learners would fail Maths ultimately meaning they have failed the year. We had to make a decision: do learners repeat or all subjects or do we condone them?" he said.
The department released a circular on December 2 announcing the change. Mhlanga said the content of the Circular was foregrounded by a change in the promotion and progression requirements for the Senior Phase introduced in 2014 with the implementation of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS).
He said concerns were raised during the academic year from within the sector that the current CAPS promotion requirements needed to be reviewed and policy review in that regard was under way. The new pass rate is, however, a short-term solution and would only apply for the 2016 academic year.
"However, in order not to disadvantage the current cohort of learners, a special condonation dispensation was urgently required to accommodate learners whose promotion to the next grade may be adversely affected by the compulsory requirement of passing Mathematics at level 3 (40%). It should be noted that the decision to apply a condonation dispensation in view of the stringent pass requirements, was an administrative decision that had to be made within the limited time available. The Circular should only be considered as an interim measure for 2016 and is only applicable for Grades 7, 8 and 9," he said.
A special condonation dispensation was urgently required to accommodate learners whose promotion to the next grade may be adversely affected by the compulsory requirement of passing Mathematics at level 3 (40%).
There was outrage on social media with many people arguing that the move would course serious damage to the already low standards for the subject. Parents said the move would have detrimental effects with pupils not being inspired to study harder.
Ashika Pillay, parent to a Grade 8 learner, said she was shocked by the announcement. She added that if a child struggled with something they needed to be coached and assisted to improve instead of lowering the bar to levels that would not boost their competitive edge.
"We are disadvantaging them by this. Those who are good at the subject will not be motivated to do well at all," she said.
Educational specialist Mary Metcalfe echoed Mhlanga's sentiments and said the hostile public reaction appeared to be based on a misinterpretation of the policy, its intentions, and its consequences. She said it was incorrect that the pass rate for Maths was now 20%. That is not the case. If it were, the outrage would be justified.
"The 20% policy allows a learner in Grade 7, 8 or 9 who has not passed maths but has passed all other subjects to proceed to the next grade [with a fail in maths] rather than repeat the year. The educational arguments that favour this approach include that: at the end of Grade 9, learners will choose between Maths Literacy and Maths. Many of those promoted without having passed maths will not proceed with maths. Grades 8 [and] 9 are the grades where the differentiation of learners into these two NSC streams takes shape," she said.
The 20% policy allows a learner in Grade 7, 8 or 9 who has not passed maths but has passed all other subjects to proceed to the next grade [with a fail in maths] rather than repeat the year.
Metcalfe emphasised that it did not make sense to make a learner repeat a year if they have only failed Maths and would not be proceeding with Maths. She said the educational benefits were that they reduced unnecessary failure and repetition, and the damaging consequences of that. She, however, admitted that there would be negative connotations going with the policy.
"There are educational challenges as a consequence of this policy. Maths teachers in Grades 8 and 9 will be coping with a wider range of performance within their classes and will need support in terms of differentiated material and differentiated teaching strategies to cope. More urgently, we need to strengthen the teaching of Maths from foundation phase so that our many capable learners who currently fail because of lack of opportunity to learn, are given the opportunity to succeed in Maths," she said.
Another expert Graeme Bloch said he did not see the move as a bad provided the department got its ducks in a row to ensure learners could pick up their socks. He agreed with Metcalfe's view that move would shift the responsibilities to teachers to catch up and properly equip the learners in the new grades.
"It's not going to disadvantage the learners as long as the level of teaching is improved," he said.