achievement education human capital Michael Corke St Barnabas College

Pulling down black excellence

Unedited version of my article in today’s Sunday Independent:

We lived in a society that cannot resist the temptation of racialization, and education is no exception. In an article published in these pages last Sunday, Graeme Bloch writes that less than 5% of black children take the Independent Examinations Board matric, and that the pass rates in these schools are ‘pulled up’ by white kids. There are two key assertions here. The first is that 5% of black learners sit for the IEB examination whilst 95% write the public examination. We are not given the independent versus public examination split for white learners. However, it is common knowledge that the IEB caters for a very small percentage of the population with the vast majority of all learners, white or black, taking the public examination. The second assertion, one that is the focus of this article, is that the success of the IEB examination is largely ‘white’ success.

My scepticism about this assertion was aroused by my own experience. In 1996, when I sat for my senior certificate exams, St Barnabas College in Bosmont was still independent and we wrote the IEB exams. I matriculated with distinction. Our class achieved a 100 percent pass rate. Not a single student was white.

It is important to have conversations and debates about genuine inequities in society and in South Africa the main dimension of inequity is race. The assertion made by Mr Bloch would be justifiable if there was significant difference between the rates at which black and white learners pass the IEB exam. The problem arises when we overlook black excellence perhaps because we are too used to pathologising all black experience.

Given that the IEB schools achieve a pass rate just under 99%; even at first glance it would seem unlikely that any demographic skews the outcome, simply because almost everyone passes. All the students who passed also qualified to enter tertiary at one of the three levels, with 85% eligible for bachelor’s degree study.

There is reluctance to delineate numbers by race across both the public and independent school system. As an official from the Department of Basic Education put it, those days are behind us. I couldn’t agree more. I am ashamed to be racialising statistics as I am about to but this is what our popular discourse provokes us to do. From the statistics I could gather, I was able to construct the worst case scenario for black IEB candidates. Under this implausible scenario I assume that all the learners that failed the IEB exam this year (the 1%) are black; but even then simple calculations show that 95% of black learners would have passed. It is very unlikely that all the learners who failed are black; hence this 95% is an understatement of ‘black’ achievement on this exam.

This is not an article borne of racial pride. I think it is important to explore this issue because the IEB situation is an illuminating case study in South Africa. The population catered for by these independent schools is miniscule, but the outcomes point to the kind of future that the country as a whole aspires to.

This is not even to quibble about matric results, which do not bear a very strong correlation to university outcomes, let alone career success or personal fulfilment. What troubles me is the way that we talk about black achievement, or not. We dismiss it, or exceptionalise it. Even in an article where Mr Bloch seemed to be urging society to admire the efforts of these independent schools, the fact that there are schools that score 100% on both blackness and achievement is obscured by a loose narrative of ‘white success’.

Having gone to such a school, I find that a more productive endeavour would be study them and seek inspiration from their success. St Barnabas College, led by Principal Michael Corke during the tough eighties and nineties, drew most of its students from disadvantaged communities across the country. I came from a poor, beautiful and solemn village in Hammanskraal.

I attribute the success of St Barnabas College to many factors, chief amongst them being that we were in an institution that believed in us. Michael Corke made sure that we understood that we were taken seriously, and that made us take ourselves seriously. He used to tell a story about the days in which he was raising funds for the school and he shared his plans with the businessmen of the day. Some were quick to tell him that the facilities he envisaged were too good for black children from poor backgrounds. The beautiful building which stands in Bosmont today is testament to the fact that he believed that we had talent worth nurturing. This is the work of someone who was beyond lamenting the fact that his learners were not from the ‘right side of the tracks’. Lamentations, no matter how well-meaning (as I believe Mr Bloch’s to be), are a double-edged sword because they sap the motivation of those who are made the subject of pity.

That St Barnabas College, with its vision, non-racial ethos and holistic approach to education attracted passionate teachers is no surprise. And there are many schools like it, both in the independent and the public sector, that demonstrate that committed teachers and determined parents are already doing the necessary hard work for achievement in disadvantaged communities. These are very diverse schools with different resources and philosophies. The Oprah Winfrey Academy and Mbilwi Secondary School come to mind.

When Mr Bloch writes that ‘we want brilliant results like the IEB’, it’s important for young people to know that he is not talking about the brilliance of some ‘white kids’ from the suburbs but that he is also talking about the brilliance of poor, black children. Call it vanity if you like, but I will not have our brilliance pushed aside so casually in a throw-away line.

Trudi Makhaya, a Rhodes Scholar, is an economist in the public service.