The pass rate for final-year students at state schools in SA rose to the highest since 2013, basic education minister Angie Motshekga said.

Of the approximately 800,800 students sitting for the exams in late 2018, 78.2% passed, Motshekga said on Thursday at an event in Midrand. That compares with 75.1% the previous year. About 312,700 people are eligible to study at higher-education facilities such as universities, she said.

But the DA has pointed out that nearly half the learners who enrolled in grade 1 in 2007 did not write the full-time matric exams in 2018.

“While the department of basic education (DBE) celebrates this year’s 78.2% matric pass rate, Minister Angie Motshekga has again failed dismally to address the large number of learners who don’t write matric in the first place,” said a statement by DA MP Nomsa Marchesi.

“The minister admits that retention should be part of the measure for matric, but conveniently forgets this each January when it’s time to release matric results. The role of the new Multiple Exam Opportunity (MEO) on this year’s marks is also striking. The Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Northern Cape all had over 15% of their candidates writing only some of their exams in November 2018, with the rest in May/June [2019]."

Marchesi raised concerns that these learners may not go on to complete their remaining exams.

“When we asked the basic education director-general earlier this year how many of these learners actually finished their second batch of exams, he couldn’t tell us.

“If these learners aren’t finishing their exams, they are just being dropped from the system to inflate provincial pass rates. So, not only are learners dropping out or getting stuck before matric, we now have the potential to lose thousands of learners who don’t complete the MEO,” said Marchesi.

NGO Equal Education (EE) also questioned the pass rate in a statement released before the results came out. 

The NGO said a look at the throughput rate over the past three years “suggests that the pass rate has actually been declining and ranges between 41% and 37%”.

“Keeping learners in school and ensuring that they leave school with a meaningful qualification remains one of the key challenges in SA’s public education system.”

EE’s recommendations include a strong focus on teacher training initiatives in SA, aimed at improving early-grade reading.

Another concern, the organisation said, is that while the government has attempted to address fees as a barrier to higher education, its ad-hoc announcement of free higher education came at a significant cost: funding for the Second Chance Programme, aimed at supporting young people who are repeating matric, was slashed by almost R117m over the medium term.

Unemployment is the fate of those who drop out. A Stats SA report shows that people who have never obtained a matric certificate form the largest proportion of SA’s unemployed — 56%. Those with a matric qualification comprise 35%, while less than 2% of those who are unemployed are graduates.

While the pass rate has been over 70% every year since 2011, the government still has some way to go to lift the quality of an education system that was ranked 114th out of 137 countries by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2017, lagging behind the Democratic Republic of Congo and Turkey. The WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index report listed an inadequately educated workforce among key constraints for doing business in the country.

“The headline numbers look good, but if you look at the broader data, which includes the number of people that started school, it is probably closer to 40%,” said Mike Schussler of economists.co.za. “We’ve also lowered the requirements and are passing on problems to other levels of education, where people are not ready for university.”

About 15% of the annual budget is spent on basic education, more than on any other expenditure item, but poor schooling outcomes continue to constrain the economy.

“The problem worldwide is that when people finish school, they’re estimated to be semi-skilled but we don’t fully understand that and make an effort to develop those skills through technical colleges and trades,” said Schussler.

Of the 12,372 students at 249 private schools and testing centres who wrote papers set by the Independent Examination Board (IEB), 98.9% passed, compared with 98.8% in 2017. About 90.7% achieved a mark high enough to enter university, according to the board.

Bloomberg, with TimesLIVE