The difference between achievement and excellence: Mathematics results for the NSC

You’ve got to feel for South Africa’s matriculants, particularly if they come from poor families, weren’t educated in their home languages, or attended underresourced schools. Many – if not most – of them have battled to pass grade 12, only to have aspersions cast on their results and to find that their qualification is devalued and discounted in the marketplace.

The marking system for matric is a bit arcane to most South Africans. Learners may know that there are two types of matric subjects (higher credit and lower credit subjects) and they may know what they need to achieve to pass matric at the bare minimum. Often, they’re unaware that there are certain non-negotiable requirements to be considered for a tertiary qualification, such as passing their home language with at least 40% and not failing any subjects.

Part of the blame for this confusion should be laid at the feet of the officials and teachers in the basic education system. For years government has used a single measurement – the minimum matric pass rate – to calculate the health of the system. This has led to perverse outcomes, such as schools and districts putting pressure on struggling grade 10s and 11s to exit the formal system in order to boost the matric pass rate.

It’s also created a distorted view of what constitutes achievement and success in basic education. A learner can receive the highest possible matric qualification – a bachelor’s pass – and still find herself underprepared for a university degree, particularly a so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degree.

We’ve focused on Mathematics results for four previous years (the matric classes of 2012 – 2015) to illustrate the gap between the minimum pass requirement and a mark high enough to be considered for tertiary studies in science, engineering or medicine. To summarise:


  • A pass with 30% is needed for a Higher Certificate Pass
  • A pass with 40% is needed for a Diploma Pass (required to study at a University of Technology)
  • A pass with 50% is needed for a Bachelor’s Pass (required to study at any tertiary institution)
  • A pass with 70% is considered the entry requirement at many universities if you want to study for an engineering, science or medical degree

The table below shows the number of students writing Mathematics over 2012 – 2015 within the NSC system (it does not include students who wrote IEB exams):

In 2015, for example, almost 265 000 learners wrote Mathematics. About 130 000 of them passed the subject with at least 30%, and over 53 000 achieved 50% or more. Only 17 500 learners scored 70% or above, however.

Expressed in percentages, the results are even starker. Over half of all learners passed Mathematics but only 7% achieved 70% or more. With less than half of all matriculants taking Mathematics this means that under 4% of each graduating class has done well enough to study medicine, engineering or a similar degree:

If the results are disaggregated down to the school level then the picture is even worse for disadvantaged students. The interactive map below shows the number of matriculants scoring 70% or above in 2015, by school, in the City of Johannesburg metro.

The schools with the highest number of Mathematics achievers (represented by bigger circles) are mostly former Model C schools, private schools and parochial schools. These schools have existed for longer, are more likely to have necessary infrastructure, have stable classroom sizes and so on. They are also more likely to cater to minorities in the public school system.

It’s welcome news that the department of basic education will be focusing on learner throughput in the future and not just on matric pass rates. This will do much to ensure that fewer learners are left behind and that most will progress through the basic education system. Unfortunately, this will do little to prepare matriculants for success in higher education.

Paul Berkowitz is a director at EDGIS, a Johannesburg-based consultancy focusing on civil / public data analysis. This article is the first in a collaboration between the Mail&Guardian and EDGIS

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