Tag Archives: Matric 2014

How to raise the ‘real’ matric pass rate [my Africa Check article on Matric 2014]

matric 2

[This article first appeared on Africa Check on the 13th of January 2014]

The release of the 2014 matric results last week followed the now familiar routine of focussing primarily on the pass rate and how it changed, both nationally and provincially.

The notion of the matric pass rate is one that is deeply rooted in the South African psyche and seen as perhaps the most important indicator of education in the country. This is extremely short sighted.

The public, and it would seem the Minister as well, believe that if the pass rate goes up then the quality of education is improving, and if it goes down then this is an omen of deteriorating quality, or – as was the case in 2014 – due to some other factor like a change in the curriculum.

The problem is that the matric pass rate is a function of the students that actually reach and write matric. More and more commentators and critics are beginning to understand why the pass rate seen in isolation is problematic and in many instances misleading.

To illustrate; of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 49 made it to matric in 2014, 37 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. The pass rate is calculated by dividing the number of students that pass matric (37 of the 100) by those that wrote matric (49 of the 100), yielding 76% in 2014.

However, a more appropriate measure would be to calculate what proportion of a cohort that started school 12 years ago passed matric – what some people are calling the ‘real’ matric pass rate or the throughput-pass-rate. That would be about 36% for 2014, down from 40% in 2013.

(For those interested in the actual numbers the calculation is 403,874 students who passed matric in 2014 divided by the 1,085,570 students that were enrolled in grade 2 in 2004. I use Grade 2 figures as the proxy for the true size of the starting cohort because there is excess grade repetition in Grade 1, leading to an overestimate of cohort size if one uses Grade 1 enrolments.)

 As a nation with a skills shortage and a below average proportion of youth that complete upper secondary school, we should be very concerned that there were fewer students reaching and writing matric than last year.

The table below shows that although there had been a general increase in the throughput rate from 2010 to 2013, the rate came down in 2014. This year there were 29,252 fewer matric candidates than in 2013. Part of this is that 2014 was a smaller cohort than 2013, but the lower throughput rate is also part of the story.

Table 1: Students writing and passing matric relative to initial cohorts at public ordinary schools only (Education Statistics at a Glance and Matric 2014 Technical Report)

  Grade 2 students 10 years earlier (i.e. in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004) Students writing matric in 2014 Students passing matric in 2014 Traditional matric pass rate Throughput pass-rate from grade 2 to matric (proportion of grade 2’s 10 years earlier who passed matric)
2010 1,071,053 537,543 364,147 68% 34%
2011 925,761 496,090 348,117 70% 38%
2012 992,797 511,152 377,829 74% 38%
2013 1,087,933 562,112 439,779 78% 40%
2014 1,085,570 532,860 403,874 76% 37%

What causes fewer students to reach matric in one year relative to the previous year? It could be external changes that affect cohort sizes (like the change of age-of-entry policy in 1999). But it can also be through the direct actions and influences of principals, teachers and district officials. Given the attention and emphasis on the matric pass rate (for schools, districts and provinces), there are a number of people who have an incentive to ensure that the matric pass rate goes up, irrespective of how this is achieved.

For example in October 2014 the MEC for Basic Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, explained to his district officials that “Any district that drops, even if it’s by 0.01 percent, before you give me the results, put the resignation letter on top.” This kind of approach to the matric pass rate introduces severe unintended consequences like teachers encouraging weaker students to leave school or repeatedly failing them in grade 11. Or, as was the case in some schools in the country, resorting to cheating and conspiring with students. I am all for more accountability in education in South Africa (including in the bureaucracy), but what exactly can a district official do in October to improve the outcomes in matric one month later? By all means set performance targets, but set the right ones. Like measuring the throughput pass-rate from grade 8 to matric, a far more sensible metric to use for accountability purposes (i.e. what proportion of grade 8 students in 2010 passed matric in 2014 relative to the throughput pass rate the previous year?) This is not an especially new argument. Nick Taylor, the CEO of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) commenting in 2011 explained the tension between quantity and quality as follows:

“Because the pass rate is a ratio consisting of two numbers—numbers of passes as a fraction of numbers of candidates—it can be improved by changing either or both these quantities. In the period 1999 to 2003 the one that was changed was the number of candidates: fewer children were given the opportunity to write matric whereas the number of passes stayed about the same. The result was that the pass rate went up and the government claimed victory… Ironically, although the 1999 to 2003 period received public approval for its increased pass rate, this was a period of declining quality that was achieved in two ways: encouraging candidates to register at the easier standard-grade level and lowering standards by making the examination papers easier, focusing largely on cognitive skills of an elementary nature at the expense of the higher-order processes of analysis and interpretation. In short, improved efficiency can be achieved by restricting opportunity or by compromising quality, or both, and this is what happened at the time.”

In light of the above statistics, it seems logical to ask not only how many students drop out (answer: 550,000), but also why they drop out. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of dropout is the article by Dr Martin Gustafsson titled “The when and how of leaving school.” In it he explains the reasons why South African students drop out, and in which grades they do so. Household surveys show that when youth are asked why they dropped out of secondary school, the four most prominent reasons were (1) lack of financing, (2) wanting to look for a job, (3) failing grades, and (4) pregnancy (for female learners). I would like to focus briefly on the last of these – pregnancy as the major cause of dropout for female students.

In 2010 there were 480,157 female students enrolled in grade 8, but by matric 2014 there were now only 289,795 female students. So 190,362 dropped out between 2010 and 2014. We know from household surveys that that 42% of female students that dropped out of school listed pregnancy as the reason. So a few back of the envelope calculations reveals that 79,952 female students dropped out of school between 2010 and 2014 because they fell pregnant (a figure close to the Department’s own estimates). This cause of dropout for girls is well defined and relatively well understood.

Despite being against policy, excluding pregnant students from school is widely practiced in South Africa, both formally and informally. In 2008 and 2009 school governing bodies at Welkom High School and Harmony High School in the Free State adopted pregnancy policies for their respective schools that allowed for the automatic exclusion of any learner from school in the event of her falling pregnant. In July 2013 the Constitutional Court ruled that this was unconstitutional and that pregnancy policies which exclude pregnant girls from attending class are prima facie a violation of pregnant learners rights to equality, basic education, human dignity and privacy.

While this cause of dropout primarily affects female learners, the fact that it is so well defined and measurable means that it is highly actionable from a policy perspective. There need to be better advocacy campaigns directed at youth – about sex, contraception, teenage pregnancy and the constitutional right to education of pregnant students. But there also needs to be tighter enforcement of policies that prevent unfair discrimination against pregnant girls. Perhaps most importantly the Department needs to develop workable solutions to facilitate the re-integration of school-age mothers after giving birth.

Decreasing pregnancy related dropout is likely to make a large dent in the 550,000 students that drop out of school before matric. Of course there are larger causes of dropout – notably the low quality of primary and secondary education and the lack of vocational opportunities – but these are notoriously difficult to understand and remediate. The fact that so little is done to firstly prevent teenage pregnancy, secondly to support pregnant learners, and thirdly to re-integrate school-age mothers, means that there is huge potential to improve the educational outcomes and life chances of thousands of girls in South Africa, and decrease dropout in the process.


For further reading on matric see the following articles:



Education woes go far deeper than matric pass rate [my Sunday Times article on Matric 2014]


[This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 11th of January 2014]

It’s at times like these that I sympathise with the Department of Basic Education and Minister Motshekga. Like the Goldilocks problem, it seems that nothing can be ‘just right.’ If the matric pass rate goes up, then standards are falling, but if it goes down then interventions are failing. Yet with the new, more rigorous CAPS curriculum we did expect the 2014 matric results to come down slightly. Yet there are many other problems we should be discussing. This year, as with previous years, not enough official attention was given to the high dropout rate. Of 100 students that started school in 2003, only 48 wrote matric in 2014, 36 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. I’ve been told by some that now is not the right time to talk about this. But when is the right time to talk about dropout? June? September? It’s never comfortable or convenient to talk about half a million children dropping out of school and facing unemployment or menial work – something that happens year in and year out. And lest you think these students are going to FET colleges or vocational training, let’s look at the stats. Household surveys show that only 1% of youths who did not hold a matric certificate held some other non-Grade 12 school certificate or diploma issued by an FET college for example. The rest have no educational qualifications whatsoever. It is highly problematic that around 60% of South African youth end up with no national or widely recognised educational qualification, despite spending a relatively high number of years in education. To be clear, the aim of education should not be to get everyone to matric. Rather we need trustworthy and credible exams at the grade 9 level, and legitimate vocational options with clear occupational roles that students are being prepared for.

This year we were also made aware of a surge in matric cheating with 5305 candidates implicated in 2014, more than ten times as many as in 2013 (473). Furthermore, the findings of ‘group copying’ by Umalusi (the quality assurance body) raises serious concerns about the involvement and complicity of teachers, departmental officials and examinations officers.


Much has already been said in the media about the drop in mathematics performance and the mathematics crisis in South Africa. Let me rather talk about another subject that should be receiving as much attention: English First Additional Language (EFAL). In South Africa students take at least one home language and one first additional (i.e. second) language. EFAL is the largest single subject in matric with 81% of all matric students writing the exam in 2014. One might expect weak performance in this subject given that most international assessments that South Africa participates in show that our students perform two to four grade levels behind their peers in reading literacy. However, the 2014 pass rate for English First Additional Language was 98%. This is largely because EFAL is set at the same standard as all the other First Additional Language subjects which are relatively easy and prioritize communication. Yet, as the 2014 Ministerial Task Team on the NSC identifies, “EFAL does not and cannot fulfil the same purpose in the curriculum as the other 10 First Additional Languages.” This is primarily because the purpose of EFAL for most students is not only communicative efficiency, but also to prepare students to learn all their other subjects in English (their second language) and to prepare them for the world of work. The Task Team report goes on to explain that most of these students are only ‘semi-lingual’ in either their home language or in English. One only needs to look at the EFAL curriculum and the EFAL exams to know why. In 2010 the EFAL exams were reviewed by a number of international benchmarking authorities. The Cambridge International Examinations body concluded that “reliance on testing memorisation and recall, rather than critical thinking and analytical and evaluation skills” was a major problem. The Australian Board of Studies New South Wales did not mince their words when they explained that “The cognitive levels assessed in the examination questions are heavily weighted towards lower-order skills…The grammatical activities themselves are meaningless and reflect a drill and practice approach to language learning which does not support the need to develop students’ language for work and participation in the broader community.” These are the same sentiments that are repeatedly expressed by business leaders and those in higher education institutions in South Africa.

The Task Team report also highlighted the low levels of English proficiency among teachers for whom English is a second language, a severe problem that is widely acknowledged in the research literature. Yet interventions to improve teacher subject knowledge in English are meagre and wholly inadequate. During the course of 2013 South African teachers who have English as a second language had a maximum of three hours of English training, and in four provinces they had none. You do not become proficient in a language with 2-3 hours of training. This is not learning how to play Sudoku. The two main reasons for the low levels of in-service teacher training are firstly that there are so few high-quality training programs available to teachers (none of which are properly evaluated), and secondly that teacher training is seen as too expensive for the Department. This is largely because many teachers, vigorously backed by their union, refuse to attend training courses unless there is additional pay for it. This makes training inordinately expensive. Alternatively the training must happen during school hours, which is basically standard practice across the country (despite it being against policy). Yet all of this is quite ridiculous and unnecessary. All South African teachers are already being paid for 80 hours of professional development per year as part of their existing employment contracts (see Government Gazette, Notice 222 of 18 February 1999, Chapter A, Number 3.2, Section D). Yet nationally representative data show that the average South African teacher spends less than 40 hours on professional development per year?

More questions than answers

We need to end our infantile obsession with the matric pass rate and move on to talking about the real issues affecting education. Poor performance in matric is rooted in weak foundations in grades 1-3. Rather than frown about the two percentage point drop in the pass rate, we should be asking why only one in three students who took maths or science scored above 40% in either subject in 2014? Or why so few take these subjects. Or why 40% of our matrics are taking Business Studies and 20% are taking Tourism, when in reality these are empty subjects that are ill conceived and prepare them for nothing? Researchers at Wits have highlighted this problem before, with Stephanie Allais concluding that, “Vast numbers of our children enrol for semi-vocational subjects that are not teaching them either robust academic skills by building concepts and knowledge, nor preparing them for work in any meaningful way.” Is there any plan to reform these curricula and the way that they are taught? Is there any commitment from the Department that from next year they will report the ‘real’ matric pass rate (the throughput rate from grade 8) in addition to the traditional matric pass rate? No single number can capture the health of our education system, the sooner we realise this the better.


Some other links to comments I’ve made on Matric 2014 results: