A group of Hudson Park High School matriculants celebrate after receiving their results. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/MADELEINE CHAPUT
A group of Hudson Park High School matriculants celebrate after receiving their results. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/MADELEINE CHAPUT

Each year, the celebratory attention paid to the matric pass rate is met with scepticism by education specialists in SA — and this year was no different.

While experts do not deny that real improvements are evident in the basic education system, they point to the enormous challenges that remain. They say that focusing on the achievements of a few pupils at the apex of the system gives a distorted picture of what is going on below. In the view of Jonathan Jansen, professor in Stellenbosch University’s education department, this amounts to a "hoax".

For 2018, the pass rate at public schools was 78.2%, up from 75.1% in 2017. Of the 512,735 pupils in public schools who wrote the matric exams — down from 534,484 in 2017 — 400,761 passed. Of these, 172,043, or 33.6%, achieved a bachelor pass, qualifying them to study for a degree at university; 141,700 (27.6%) obtained a diploma pass; 86,790 (16.9%) a higher certificate pass; and 99 a national senior certificate.

The 2018 matric class achieved 156,885 distinctions, a slight decline from the 161,081 obtained in 2017.

For the 12,372 pupils at independent or private schools who sat the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) national senior certificate exam, the pass rate was 98.92%, up from 98.76% in 2017. A total of 90.65% of those who passed qualified for entry to study for a degree (up from 88.5%); 7.33% qualified for entry to diploma study (down from 8.95%); and 0.95% (1.3% in 2017) achieved entry for study at the higher certificate level.

The true indicator of the quality of the matric exam is the high drop-out and failure rates in the first year of university

But what the public school figures provided by basic education minister Angie Motshekga don’t tell us is that in 2007 just over 1-million pupils entered grade 1. As Nic Spaull, senior researcher in Stellenbosch University’s economics department, points out, this translates into a "real" pass rate in 2018 of just 40%. The 78.2% figure is based on those pupils who remained in the schooling system throughout; it discounts those who dropped out, failed or transferred to other educational institutions. It is this retention rate, Spaull says, that provides the real measure of the success or failure of the education system.

"The main thing the drop-out rate is telling us is that these children are not getting a firm foundation in primary school," Spaull says. He refers to the "2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study", which found that 78% of grade 4 pupils could not read for meaning in any language.

The latest "Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study" showed about 60% of SA’s grade 5s and about the same percentage of its grade 9s could not do basic mathematics.

Another distorting factor, in Spaull’s view, is the "standardisation" of exam results by Umalusi, the Council for Quality Assurance in General & Further Education & Training. Umalusi adjusted upwards the results in 17 subjects in the education department’s matric exam and adjusted 11 subjects downwards. For the IEB results, eight subjects were adjusted upwards and eight downwards.

These adjustments are intended to standardise and equalise exam results over the years, compensating for exams that are considered harder or easier than those written before. But because the adjustments are made on the basis of five-year historical comparisons, Spaull says they factor in the results of 112,000 weaker pupils who were progressed in 2015. Standards were lowered significantly to accommodate these pupils, he says, and this lowering has rippled through to subsequent years.

Jansen highlights another problem: he says provinces hold back weak pupils in grades 10 or 11 to beef up their matric pass rates.

Competition between provinces is fierce. For 2018 Gauteng came out on top, with an 87.9% pass rate, followed by the Free State (87.5%), the Western Cape (81.5%), the North West (81.1%), Mpumalanga (79%), KwaZulu-Natal (76.2%), the Northern Cape (73.3%), the Eastern Cape (70.6%) and Limpopo (69.4%).

Jansen also flags the low percentage mark required for a pass — 30% in some subjects, and 40% in others. He believes the pass rate should be pegged at 50%.

But the true indicator of the quality of the matric exam, says Jansen, is the high drop-out and failure rates in the first year of university. (Recent first-year drop-out figures are hard to come by, but the department of higher education in 2015 noted that almost 50% of university students did not complete their degrees.)

What it means

To focus only on the matric pass mark is to sideline the systemic problems facing SA’s schools

Education specialists agree that there have been improvements in basic education. Brahm Fleisch, Wits University professor of education policy, says over the past 10-15 years, the system has stabilised and is much better than it was 20 years ago. "Access has improved and there are far greater numbers of learners sitting for the matric exam," he says. "However, there are still grave concerns over quality, which is evident in very early years in learning."

Spaull believes the basic education system is on the mend and that not all is "doom and gloom". NGO Equal Education agrees, saying there have been "some important, albeit incremental, improvements over the past few years".

Educationalist Martin Gustafsson also points to the steep improvements in reading competencies and in the grasp of the basics of maths and science.

However, for these gains to accelerate and deepen, SA needs to improve the quality of its teachers and make significant investments in the foundation phase of education.