IEB matric exams in South Africa at risk of going the way of the NHI

 ·18 Jan 2024

Academics have baulked at the suggestion that South Africa get rid of Independent Examination Board (IEB) exams and establish “one matric examination” for all – likening it to the government’s attempts to centralise healthcare in South Africa through the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme.

As the country celebrates the great success of the matriculants who sat for the IEB exams in 2023, Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi has ruffled some feathers by suggesting that the country do away with these with ‘private exams’ and instead pursue “one matric examination” for all.

“One country, one matric examination. In a few weeks’ time, all our matriculants will be in the same lecture rooms in the same varsity or college. Why are they still writing different matric exams as IEB or NSC? It is a matter that must be attended to,” he said.

Lesufi argued that all matriculants, whether IEB or NSC (government’s National Senior Certificate), are effectively the same – except that those who write the independent exams are of a ‘different class’.

“The pass mark is the same. The curriculum is the same. The standard bearer is the same (UMALUSI). We can’t continue to separate exams on the basis of class. The rich, semi-rich and poor having different matric examinations – all our children should write the same examinations like they do at universities or colleges. It’s about time,” he said.

Responding to Lesufi’s comments in a column this week, prominent academic and professor of education at Stellenbosch University Johnathan Jansen said the premier was misguided and simply leaning into populist talking points ahead of the 2024 election.

According to Jansen, trying to create “one matric exam” at the expense of the independent IEB was akin to what the government is trying to do with healthcare in South Africa, and would just serve to benefit politicians who are seeking to centralise power and control in the name of ‘equity’.

“A single examination is not about equity in education, just like the National Health Insurance (NHI) initiative has little to do with quality healthcare; it is about creating a concentration of resources (like NSFAS and so on) that can be stripped by the corrupt in officialdom now that the taps are running dry in other parts of the economy,” he said.

Jansen said that focusing on the IEB was nonsensical as the exams serve as an exit point after 12 years of education. If Lesufi or the government cared about equity in education, the final exam of a learner’s school career is an illogical place to start.

“The (final IEB) exam is not the problem, (the government’s) failure to equalise opportunities to learn long before the grade 12 exams is,” he said.

Same-same, but different

Jansen added that it is a distortion to frame the IEB exams as being for ‘the elite’, noting that schools across the board and across ‘classes’ opt for the IEB.

This was echoed by the IEB itself.

“The claim that the IEB caters for the elite – it’s not true,” the group said, adding that a broad spectrum of schools operate the exams, from high-cost private schools to low-fee public schools.

Responding specifically to the call for “one exam”, the body said it is something that could be debated, though it questioned the overall framing of the discussion.

“As the IEB, we welcome the debate (on ‘one matric exam’), but surely there is a better way of handling this? Let’s sit around the table and thrash this out and look into it carefully.”

The IEB stressed that there is no IEB curriculum versus NSC curriculum – “It is the NSC, period” – but said there were differences in the standards involved.

“Learners who wrote the 2023 exam wrote the National Senior Certificate exam. The difference is that there are three assessment bodies in South Africa that are recognised in terms of the law. The three of them offer the same curriculum – different exams on the same curriculum.

“(The difference is) how a curriculum is delivered and taught and how the examinations are set,” the IEB said. “There are different standards”.

Jansen said that the sudden focus on the IEB is likely because the results from the independent exams are superior to what the NSC can muster, which is an embarrassment for the government.

The IEB results are stronger, the quality of exams is better, the testing is more stringent, and the exams are not subject to political interference or “adjusting” as is the case with the NSC, Jansen said.

He added that the government would do better to fix what is broken in public education instead of trying to break what already works.

IEB matriculants passed with a 98.46% rate in 2023 – 88.59% of which were university degree passes. The NSC exam results will be published later on Thursday (18 January).

Read: IEB matric exam results for 2023

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