Matric pass-rate drop disappointing but understandable

It has been widely accepted that the 2014 matric results could have been much better had teachers mastered the new curriculum.

The 2014 cohort were the first to write Caps, as the new curriculum is known, in matric, which they began in 2012, the year remembered for the Limpopo textbooks debacle.

Their pass rate nationally is 75.8%, a decline compared with the class of 2013, which achieved 78.2%. Of the 532 860 public school matrics who wrote as full-time candidates in 2014, 128 986 failed.

But it’s not only the overall national pass rate that took a dive: bachelor degree entrance passes dropped to 28% from 30.6% in 2013, and the percentage of mathematics and physical science passes declined significantly.

Training described as insufficient
The number of matrics who passed mathematics dropped from 59.1% in 2013 to 53.5%. Only 3.2% – or 7 216 – of matrics achieved distinctions in this critical subject.


The physical science pass rate dropped from 67.4% in 2013 to 61.5%. Only 3.3% – or 5 513 – achieved distinctions.

Teachers were trained before the roll-out of Caps in their grades. But teacher unions and education experts complained that the training wasn’t sufficient.

Announcing the national and provincial results on Monday evening, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga admitted that the “implementation of Caps might have caused instability to the extent of distress in some subjects”.

“We’re very mindful of the fact that change, no matter how well intended and small it might be, brings about uncertainty and instability. We’re conscious of the fact that teachers, learners, examiners … work better with what they know.”

But she said: “There is no doubt that over the next few years the system will adapt to these changes, and teachers, examiners and subject advisers will become more confident and adept with Caps and we will reap the benefits of added quality outcomes to the system …”

Lessons from the present
“The benefits of [Caps] in the long term will outlive our generation of leaders and managers in the sector. We have more than enough lessons from the 2014 … national senior certificate to propel us to greater heights of improving learning outcomes.”

Motshekga’s promise could perhaps be realised if her successor doesn’t revise the curriculum, something that the country’s basic education ministers keep doing.

Mugwena Maluleke, the general secretary of Sadtu, said it would have been an advantage if teachers had been thoroughly trained to teach the new curriculum.

“Well, we were not expecting any decline in the system because the system was maturing. However, because of policy changes, clearly some of the things that were supposed to have been done have [had an] impact on the outcome.

“Any revision of the curriculum demands that the teachers must be trained, and not only in that particular year when changes are taking place. The changes have to be preceded by serious training, serious piloting. Changes in any curriculum take time to mature and, as they mature, they don’t only have an impact on the teachers but also the examiners.”

Empowering teachers is essential
In its media statement, Sadtu said teachers weren’t prepared properly for teaching the new curriculum. “The decline may therefore be attributed to the lack of proper professional development of teachers to deliver the new curriculum. The Caps orientation did little to prepare teachers for implementation.”

The union said there was a “need to conduct more teacher development in order to empower teachers to be able to teach learners in all subjects, more so in mathematics and science. Empowering teachers … is critical to the success of the learners they teach.”

Matakanye Matakanye, the secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, said they were “delighted about the results, although obviously they have dropped”.

“They have dropped because there were a number of snags, one of which the minister has mentioned this evening: because the curriculum is new the teachers had to be taken through training. If teachers were thoroughly prepared in terms of the content, we would have been in a better position. Such training should not be a one-day event.”

The drop can be understood
But Umalusi, the quality assurer, is one body satisfied by the fact that Motshekga didn’t announce a questionable pass rate increase. John Volmink, its chairperson, told the City Press newspaper last weekend he had expected a decline of between 3% and 5%, given the new curriculum.

“My point is that, when we have a new curriculum, [we should expect a drop]. In 2009, we had a new curriculum when we left higher grade and standard grade, then the pass rate dropped by 2% [compared with the previous year],” Volmink said.

“We have a similar situation here. It’s unfamiliarity. Once people get used to this one, it will also increase.

“If we do not give attention to the integrity of the examination, we erode confidence in the entire system.”

Volmink said the 2014 results showed that Caps had had a “great start”. “We’re developing a new base and now we know we can only move upwards.”

Basil Manuel, the president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), agreed, and said that, “whilst [the decrease is] disconcerting, [it] does demonstrate the integrity of the system in responding to the changing demands of the Caps curriculum”.

Failure on a broader scale
Those who wrote the matric exam in 2014 are just 42.5% of the cohort of 1 252 071 pupils who enrolled in grade one in 2003, which the union described as distressing.

Manuel said Naptosa acknowledged the reasons provided for the 50%-plus dropout of pupils from grade one to grade 12, but did not accept it. “We are doing the children of South Africa a great injustice.”

Motshekga caused a stir when she explained the pass-rate drop. She said the 2014 matrics included the “first group of grade 11 learners who were progressed without having met promotion requirements”.

“It would be unwise to blame the underperformance in some subjects in the national senior certificate on these learners,” she said. “It is encouraging that some of these learners that were progressed have attained an NSC [national senior certificate] pass and some obtained bachelor’s passes.”

Motshekga said this ambitious practice – which her administration had learnt from countries that were “pro-automatic progression instead of repetition” – would not be dropped.

“We have carried out our first step in dealing with inefficiency. We need to strengthen our support programme for such learners.”

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