Whilst announcing the National Senior Certificate (Matric) results for 2015, The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshegka made reference to “Progressed learners” who may have contributed to the decrease in the overall pass rate. This presents an opportunity to look into what a “progressed learner” is and also what the matric results have revealed about them.

What is a “progressed learner”?

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) defined progression as “…the advancement of a learner from one grade to the next, excluding Grade R, in spite of the learner not having complied with all the promotion requirements” (DBE, 2013: xi). This policy was first introduced in relation to the General Education and Training (GET) phase (Grades R-9), and in 2013 it was announced that a regulation would be introduced to allow for progression in the Further Education and Training (FET) phase (Grades 10-12).

The South African schooling system is divided into a number of phases which consist of three years each. The foundation phase is grades 1 to 3, the intermediate phase includes grades 4 to 6, the senior phase consists of grades 7 to 9, and grades 10 to 12 make up the further education and training phase (DBE, 2013). Policy in the country states that a learner cannot spend more than four years in any particular phase (DBE, 2015). In each phase, a learner can therefore only fail one grade once. Thereafter, they are progressed to the next grade even if they do not meet the promotion requirements. Each phase has specific requirements which are related to percentage passes for each subject (DBE, 2013).

The state’s intention behind this policy is to uphold the best interests of the learner and to avoid learners dropping out of school unnecessarily, so that every learner has the opportunity to achieve an exit qualification such as the National Senior Certificate which is written at the end of Grade 12 (DBE, 2015). The assumption is therefore that it is better to progress learners and to provide them with support to ensure that they have the best possibility of succeeding. Progression does not however guarantee that a learner will attain their National Senior Certificate in Grade 12. A learner must comply with the certification requirements, and will be given multiple opportunities to write the National Senior Certificate in order to achieve this (DBE, 2015). These learners may be allowed to repeat Grade 12 at the same school, or they may do so through various colleges on a part-time or full-time basis. The decision to extend the progression policy to include the GET phase was however met with concern which echoes the debates around progression and retention internationally.

Retention vs progression

Debates around the costs and benefits of both social promotion and retention have been ongoing, and research has found fault with both practices. Countries, such as the USA and Canada also practice progressing learners, referred to as social promotion. This is however usually limited to the end of Grade 8 as comprehensive high schools (grades nine through twelve) are more flexible about determining which level of students take which classes due to the graduation requirements (a form of streaming), which makes the concept of social promotion much less meaningful at the higher grades. This practice has raised concerns related to the struggles which these progressed learners face when they do not have the prerequisite skills and knowledge which will allow them to cope with the subject matter. This may lead to learners becoming despondent, frustrated and dropping out. A further argument against progression is that it creates added pressure for teachers in terms of the time which is required to give these learners extra support.

The argument for progression is based on moving learners through the schooling system. Studies have shown that the retention of learners leads to these learners dropping out later on, and the risk of this increases with multiple retentions. In addition, although grade retention may help learners in the short term, the long term benefits are uncertain and achievement gains decline within a few years of retention. Learners who are retained may also fall out of their age cohort and end up in a grade with much younger children, which has a range of social and emotional implication for these learners (Jimerson, 2001; Jacob and Lefgren, 2007).

What did the 2015 matric results reveal about these learners?

The matric class of 2015 saw the largest number of progressed learners since the policy was promulgated in 2013 for the FET phase. Of the 799 306 matric candidates, 65 671 were “progressed leaners” (9.8%). Initial analyses of the results interestingly contradict some assumptions concerning these learners. According to the Department of Basic Education, of the progressed learners that wrote the examinations, 22 060 (37.6%) passed. With regards to the type of passes, 3 297 obtained Bachelor passes, 8 473 obtained Diploma passes; and 10 264 Higher Certificate passes. The most interesting finding is that a total of 1 081 distinctions were attained (DBE, 2016).

What are the implications?

What do these findings say about our understanding of grade repetition and retention in South African schools? Is grade repetition really linked to ability and knowledge? This issue was explored by David Lam, Cally Ardington, and Murray Leibbrandt. In their study, they found that learning and measured performance generates higher enrolment, higher failure rates, and a weaker link between ability and grade progression. More specifically, the results suggest that grade progression in African schools is poorly linked to actual ability and learning. This calls into question some schools’ ability to correctly assess achievement and determine which learners move to higher grades. More importantly, these results point to a system that may be failing certain groups of South African learners.

In South Africa the jury is still out on the value of progressing learners at the FET phase of schooling. It seems that what is needed is an understanding of what “passing” actually means and, importantly, the factors that influence whether a learner passes or not. In addition, with the Department of Basic Education’s focus shifting to a differentiated education system rather than the mainstream academic system, the policy of progressing learners may require revising, as learners who do not meet the requirement for progressing along the academic pathway may be pushed into the technical and vocational education streams.

Dr Andrea Juan

Dr Vijay Reddy

Sylvia Hannan