This week, the nation stopped whatever it was doing to take part in what's become an annual ritual, the televised reveal of the matric pass rate. There are speeches, honoured guests, and bouts of raucous applause on the night. This is followed by a careful dissection of statistics the net day – the number of bachelor passes, whether math and physics marks rose or dropped, and how many "progressed learners" made the final cut.
Education experts gamely respond to the same questions from journalists each year, usually some variation of "What does it mean?" For the most part, this is simply political theatre. There may be minor ups and downs in the national pass rate year on year but the general trend is slowly upwards. The standard response from government is to congratulate the matriculants and to concede that "more needs to be done."
"We will be the first to concede that despite the notable improvements in the system, we are yet to cross our own Rubicon. We must agree that much has been achieved, but much more needs to be done in the area of efficiency and quality." Angie Motshekga
But if we care at all about the direction our national education is headed, it's not the matric results we should be obsessing about.
The education NGO Equal Education this week warned that by grade 3, children in the poorest 60 percent of schools are already three years behind more affluent learners. Essentially what this means is that "for most learners, passing matric well is already largely unattainable by the time those learners reach the end of grade 3," the organisation said.
Our interventions should target much younger children. Recent research has shown that such a move could have enduring benefits for a child.
Brian O'Connell, professor of education and former rector of the University of the Western Cape, was part of a team tasked with reviewing the national senior certificate back in 2013. Years later, he tells me he's not enamoured of the senior certificate. "Matric is not where education begins. Education starts in grade 1," he says.
For O'Connell, the question of South Africa's education trajectory is much broader than the results of the national exit exam.
"The issue is not what happens at the senior certificate level, the issue is what happens at schools and our understanding of what education is. Unfortunately we have not had a proper discourse about education," he says.
If we're to expend our energies anywhere, he says, it should not be on grooming students for a standardised exit exam but on investing in teachers.
"We must get our teachers to be good teachers," he says. "We have no 'communities of practice'."
He mentions Japan as an example, where teachers belong to a small knowledge communities which meet up two or three days a week to talk about their subject and their school.
"They're enriching their subject matter and their pedagogy. There's a complete commitment to the education project," says O'Connell.
Unfortunately, this is not the experience of many South African teachers. "You go to school, give your lesson, and you go home and mark book," he says.
Education professor Mary Metcalfe's concerns begin a bit later than O'Connell's, with high school.
"I have a particular concern about grade 8 and 9," she says. "The repetition rates for grade 9, 10 and 11 are just phenomenal. What happens at that stage, when young people think they're useless anyway? The dropout rate is high."
The dropout rate is problematic. Over a million children started grade one in South Africa's public schools in 2005. Twelve years later, less than half of them made it successfully through the school system. This means that if you focus your energies on matrics, you've already missed half of what should have been the graduating class for the year.
"The real pass rate for 2016 is not 76.2 percent but is in fact 40.9 percent," EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said this week.
Still, much of the nation's teaching energies go into grade 12 and the upper levels of school. But you can't neglect a student for a decade, then run them through bootcamp in matric and expect them to do well. After all, education is a process.
"Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." John Dewey
"Matric results are not made in grade 12," says Metcalfe. "So many provinces put their energy into bootcamps and last minute studying. The grade 6s and 7s who are now going into large inhospitable high schools are going to be in matric in 2021. Let's nurture them, give them the basics, make sure they have textbooks. I can guarantee they'll improve."
Professor of education Ruksana Osman agrees that there's an overemphasis on matric performance.
"When you highlight too much of matric, it becomes a sharp focus on one dimension of a long and complex 12 year journey," says Osman. There is also the assumption that this is the end of the journey, when in fact learning is lifelong.
We need to think of education not as an end goal, she says, but "as a pipeline, starting with early education and continuing through higher education, vocational education and continuing adult education".
"We need to see education as lifelong and think about it holistically and in a much more long-term way than we're thinking about it at the moment," she says. "We also need to focus on what the national priorities for us as a country are. [It's] not just about global competitiveness. Both are important for a healthy democracy." Lifelong learning, after all, is about producing critical and active citizens.
So when schools open their doors next Wednesday, let us turn our eyes to the country's preschools, its grade R classes, and its grade 8s. It's here that a child's matric fortunes are made, and it's about time we started making a fuss about it.