’Tis the season of the numbers … Every January South Africa puts on its diagnostic hat and interrogates the matric results to answer the age-old question of whether the results have improved or declined.
For our contribution to the debate, we analyse the number of pupils, percentages and throughputs ºby using the 2016 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination report produced by the department of basic education and research conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). In particular, we examine grade 12 mathematics and physical science performance.
Using other sources of data, we are able to comment on the education system by taking a broader view and examining grade nine performance and the pathways that learners follow from grade nine to grade 12.
In December, the HSRC released the results from our participation in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). South Africa achieved a score of 372 for maths and 358 for science. Although these are relatively low scores, between Timss 2003 and Timss 2015 South Africa showed the largest improvement of all participating countries, improving its maths score by 87 Timss points and its science score by 90.
In Timss 2015, a third of maths and science pupils achieved a score of more than 400 points (exhibiting the minimum competencies). In 2003, only 11% of pupils achieved above this score in both maths and science, showing that there have been improvements since then.
But have these improvements at the grade nine level translated into better grade 12 results?
Using the matric examination results to comment on the health of our education system is more complex. It is difficult (and sometimes misleading) to make simple comparisons using the national pass rates. Other measures such as throughput rates, participation rates and performance in particular subjects must be considered.
The department of basic education has indicated that there was a marginal upward trajectory for the class of 2016. But rather than getting entangled in the debates about improvement, this analysis describes learner participation and performance in maths and science, and evaluates pupil performance against the targets set in the National Development Plan (NDP).
According to the NSC reports (rounding off figures to 500s), from 2010 to 2016 the number of full-time pupils who achieved bachelor degree passes increased by 36 000 from 126 500 to 162 500, an annual average increase of 4.7%.
The NDP has set a target of 300 000 bachelor’s passes by 2024. But, if the present trajectory continues, we will fall short of it and are more likely achieve about 240 000 bachelor’s passes by that year.
In the same period (2010 to 2016), the number of pupils writing the maths examination increased slightly from 263 000 to 266 000. The pass rate hovered at around 50% and increased from 47.4% in 2010 to 51.1% in 2016. Each year, about 130 000 pupils achieved more than 30% in the maths exams and an average of 52 700 achieved a pass higher than 50%.
From 2010 to 2015, the number of learners who achieved more than 50% in maths has grown by 3.8% annually. An interesting statistic in the NSC report is that 4 364 pupils achieved distinctions in mathematical literacy. It is very likely these pupils would have achieved more than 50% if they had taken mathematics as a subject.
The number of pupils writing the physical science examination decreased from 205 500 in 2010 to 192 500 in 2016, but the pass rate increased from 47.8% in 2010 to 62% in 2016. This is an increase from 98 260 pupils in 2010 to 119 427 pupils in 2016 achieving more than 30% in the examination.
During this period, the number of learners achieving scores greater than 50% increased from 37 000 in 2011 to 42 500 in 2015. The pool of matrics who achieved above 50% in maths and science and who could therefore access the tertiary courses related to science, engineering, technology and health is low but growing slowly.
The second debate that has occupied the public and policy agenda is how learners progress from grade nine to grade 12.
So far we have largely used crude throughput measures such as looking at the grade nine participation four years before grade 12 and then comparing this to the number of full-time students writing the matric examination. In an ideal situation, learners who were in grade nine in 2013 would progress to grade 12 or another educational pathway, completing with a National Qualifications Framework level four qualification in 2016.
In 2013, there were 1.07‑million learners in grade nine. In 2016, there were 674 500 full-time candidates and 153 000 part-time pupils in grade 12. The crude throughput rate to matric is therefore 63%.
But the educational pathways of pupils are more nuanced and pupils may spend more than three years in the senior phase of schooling because of grade repetition and dropping in and out of the educational system. So we require more sophisticated methodologies.
A study by Broekhuizen, Van der Berg and Hofmeyr reported that out of every 100 learners who start school, 60 write the grade 12 examinations and 37 pass them.
The National Income Dynamics Study (conducted by the University of Cape Town) and the South African Youth Panel Study (conducted by the HSRC) use panel methodologies and follow the same learners for a number of years.
Both studies show that fewer than 40% of pupils who reach grade nine sit for the matriculation examination within the minimum period of time.
The youth panel study followed grade nine pupils who participated in Timss 2011 for four consecutive years to trace their educational transitions. This was an exploratory study and, with missing data, there is an upward bias in the reduced sample. But even with these overestimations, we gain an indication of the pathways followed by young people.
Isdale, Reddy, Winnaar and Zuze (2016) found that 92% of learners who were in grade nine in 2011 were still in school in 2014, 1.1% had moved to a Further Education and Training college, 1% were working and 5.6% were not in education, employment or training.
Even if overestimated, it would seem that learners are staying in the schooling system.
Furthermore, the analysis revealed that they follow one of four educational pathways through the secondary school system. Forty-seven percent follow a smooth pathway, progressing through secondary school without interruption.
Another 40% follow a staggered pathway, with their advancement marked by at least one interruption. An additional 7% remain stuck in grade nine or 10, and 7% leave school shortly after grade nine and do not return.
Although 57% of the smooth-transition group come from fee-paying and independent schools, 43% come from no-fee schools. Learners who follow a smooth transition tend to have better-educated parents and achieve higher scores in Timss maths and science.
Positive attitudes about school, prior achievement and high educational expectations are all related to smooth transitions.
Gender (being a boy), age (being older) and grade repetition are all related to interrupted pathways through school.
This study confirms other analyses that the educational system has succeeded in improving participation and retention, but better maths and science achievement remains elusive.
The NDP target is to have 350 000 maths passes and 320 000 physical science passes by 2024. With the annual pass growth rate of 1.1% for maths and 3.6% for physical science, it is highly unlikely that these targets will be met.
Vijay Reddy is an executive director at the Human Sciences Research Council, where Andrea Juan is a postdoctoral fellow and Sylvia Hannan is a researcher.