Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

There is much that is encouraging in the national matric results for 2016 that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga released this week, but there is, as always, much in the numbers to prompt concern, and confusion.

The matric pass rate has risen to 72.5%, which is up from the 70.7% to which it fell in 2015 after following an overhaul of the curriculum. It has also been policy for the past two years to "progress" pupils who had failed Grade 11 more than once to matric. That meant a weaker cohort of pupils wrote in 2015 and again in 2016, when the number of progressed pupils was much larger than before.

Excluding those progressed pupils, the pass rate has increased to a more robust 76.2%, which takes it back to 2014 levels and Motshekga has hailed the fact that the pass rate has stayed above 70% for six years now. That is not spectacular, but it is not terrible either. And although poorer rural provinces still do much worse than more urban ones, and poorer schools do worse than more affluent ones, there is clear progress to be seen in terms of closing the gap in recent years.

To take just one sign of progress, where in 2005 the top 20% of schools accounted for 60% of passes that could get matriculants into bachelor’s degrees, that proportion has fallen to 49% — so, a much more diverse population of youngsters is gaining access to universities.

Perhaps, most welcome is that while Motshekga has trumpeted the gains, she has also been frank about the challenges, emphasising that her department has made it a priority to improve teaching and learning outcomes, with a particular focus on the earlier years of schooling.

However, a close look at the numbers and the process raises all sorts of questions about these results. The issue of the progressed children looms large in 2017 as it did in 2016. The approach has much merit in that it cuts the dropout rate, moves weak children through the schools faster and gives them another chance to make it through matric and into tertiary education. It also makes it very hard to tell whether the results are in reality better or worse. The pass rate for the progressed pupils was just 27%. And their inclusion in the past two years has complicated the standardisation process that quality control agency Umalusi does on the results.

A much more diverse population of youngsters is gaining access to universities

As it is, there are big question marks over the standardisation, which in 2016 saw Umalusi adjusting the marks for 28 of the 54 matric subjects upwards and only four downwards. DA MP Gavin Davis, who was on the committee, has accused Umalusi of inflating the results unduly because instead of looking, as it should have done, at whether the exam papers were more difficult than in previous years, it simply adjusted relative to previous years’ outcomes.

But even without questions about the quality of the numbers, the quality of the matric itself is still grounds for huge concern, especially in terms of SA’s schools producing the kinds of youngsters capable of acquiring the high-level skills needed for a modern economy.

Those 442,672 pupils may have passed matric. But a pass can be gained with more than 40% in just three subjects and 30% in a further three. So for many, a matric pass is not going to be the passport to a job or to further study they hope for.

The statistics show that only 36% of those matriculants passed at bachelor’s degree level. And when it comes to maths and science — the "gateway" subjects to the study of crucial skills sets such as the sciences, the healthcare professions, accountancy and engineering — only 20% of all those matriculants passed mathematics with more than 40% and only 17% passed physical sciences with more than 40%. So, the pool of potential university and college students in those areas is very small, to SA’s detriment.

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