When speaking about the state of education in South Africa it is both conventional and convenient to talk about the matric pass rate.
This figure is easy to understand; it is published every year in all national media – and it is very misleading.
Although the matric exams are an important institution in South Africa – notably because they are quality assured by an independent body, Umalusi – they should not be used as the primary indicator of school-system performance. Matric results provide useful information for those who reach and write matric, but tell us nothing about the more than 500 000 pupils who started school in 2002 but never reached matric, let alone passed.
The tale of the matric results is a story half-told.
If we look at the matric class of 2013, there were 562 112 full-time candidates, of whom 439 779 passed, yielding a matric pass rate of 78.2%. But how many pupils were there to begin with? If we look at the 2013 grade 12 cohort, we see that there were as many as 1 111 858 pupils in grade two (in 2003), 1 094 189 in grade 10 (in 2011) – but only 562 112 in grade 12 (in 2013). What happened to the other 549 746 that never made it to matric? Most dropped out in grade 10 and 11.
Rather than calculate the matric pass rate as the number who pass matric divided by those who wrote matric (that is, 439 779 divided by 562 112), what would the 2013 figure be if we instead calculated the number who pass matric divided by those who started school 12 years earlier (439 779 divided by 1 111 858).
I use grade two figures rather than grade one because grade two is a better indication of the true size of the cohort, given the excess repetition we have in grade one.
The calculation I am suggesting we do yields a truly shocking cohort matric pass rate: 40%! That is to say, of every 100 pupils who started school, only 51 made it to matric in 2013, 40 passed and 16 qualified to attend university.
This analysis shows how the normal way of calculating the pass rate, which as we know yielded 78.2%, shrouds the reality that half of the cohort never reached matric, let alone passed.
Discussing the matric pass rate without also mentioning that hundreds of thousands of pupils drop out in grades 10 and 11, and thus never make it to matric, is disingenuous, misleading and disregards those children marginalised by the schooling system.
Although I would like to celebrate with the pupils who passed their matric exams, I find myself asking: "Who is going to speak up for the 550 000 children who started school 12 years ago, but have been silently excluded because of drop out? Given that we have no reliable pre-matric exam, what educational qualification do these children have?"
Absolutely nothing. They are the first ones to fill the ranks of the unemployed, leading to a staggering unemployment rate of 50% – twice the national average – among youth (those from 18 to 24 years old).
Relative to other developing countries, South Africa actually has a higher than average proportion of pupils entering upper secondary school and an average proportion entering the last grade (grade 12). Yet the proportion that successfully completes secondary school is well below average for similar developing countries.
In South Africa only 40% of a cohort will graduate from upper secondary school, compared with much higher figures in Turkey (53%), Brazil (67%) and Chile (72%). This also explains why South Africa has comparatively few youth who reach and complete post-school education. Fewer than 10% of youths in South Africa attain 15 years of education (completion of a three-year degree, for example), compared with at least 15% in Columbia and Peru and 24% in the Philippines and Egypt.
Similar findings have previously been published, and numerous researchers have provided convincing explanations for the South African dilemma, particularly the analyses of Stellenbosch University academic Martin Gustafsson. His research points to four major factors: the low quality of primary and secondary education, financial constraints, teenage pregnancy and the lack of vocational opportunities.
The department of basic education has already begun to implement policies aimed at addressing these problems. These include:
Introducing an externally evaluated grade 9 exam over the next three years;
Implementation of the standardised Annual National Assessments, which test grades one to six and nine in numeracy and literacy (introducing these assessments has been a truly historic achievement, even though they do still have many problems);
Almost universal (99%) delivery of textbooks for this year;
The creation, publication and distribution of workbooks to all schools; and
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's finalising late last year of sensible minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure and her wisely chosen phased-in approach for their implementation.
We often overlook these quiet achievements when we are confronted with the shocking and unrelenting statistics of abysmal underperformance. The foundations are being laid for improvement and progress, but much, much more needs to be done if we are to achieve even our least ambitious goals.
I think there are three main points that summarise the concerns identified here and point the way forward:
Placing excess attention on the matric pass rate is politically expedient, but educationally unsound; the real focus needs to be on the universal acquisition of basic skills in primary school and the quality of secondary schooling;
The lack of any trustworthy pre-matric qualification means that most youths have no widely recognised proof of their educational status; and
Pushing students through the schooling system in the absence of meaningful learning and external standardised assessments is detrimental to the students concerned and to the education system more generally.
We need to move beyond a single-minded and shortsighted focus on the matric pass rate and instead start focusing on the quality of primary and secondary schooling.
Looking more broadly, as we approach general elections this year, we can only hope that those in the corridors of power prioritise service delivery to the poor over patronage of the elite, accountability over cadre leniency and, perhaps most importantly, new and innovative ways of raising the quality of the teaching force. As research has shown time and again, no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers.
Nic Spaull is a researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University. His education-focused research can be found at nicspaull.com/research, and he can be followed on Twitter