Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Maths and physical science pass rates show a decline, even after leaked papers

The results of the two subjects that almost plunged the 2020 matric examinations into chaos have shown a decline. 

Of the 233 315 candidates who wrote mathematics, 125 526 passed, resulting in a 53.8% pass rate, down from 54.6% in 2019. 

Of the 174 310 candidates who wrote physical science, only 114 758 passed, equating to 65.8%, a decline from the 75.5% pass rate in 2019. 

This is contained in the department of basic education’s national senior certificate 2020 examination report published on Monday after Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga released the results.

The exam papers for the two subjects were leaked hours before they were written last year. The leaks are still being further investigated. 

The leaks led to Motshekga announcing that there would be a national rewrite of the two subjects to maintain the examinations’ integrity, which was the first time a national rewrite would take place. 

But in the end, the rewrites did not happen: the Pretoria high court ruled against the decision after individual learners and the South African Democratic Teachers union (Sadtu) took Motshekga to court, asking that the court set aside her decision. 

Two weeks ago, the department announced that one of its investigations had concluded that the leak was not widespread, and that the integrity of the examination had not been compromised.

Last week quality assurer Umalusi also approved the release of the results, after finding that there were no systemic irregularities that might have compromised the credibility and integrity of the matric exams. 

Results of gateway subjects, including physics and mathematics, are consistent with those of 2019, recording only slight increases or declines.

The highest pass rates are for history, which had a 92% pass rate, and life orientation, which saw a slight decrease, from 99.8% in 2019 to 99.4% in 2020. The business studies pass rate experienced a sharp drop: it fell from 77.9% in 2019 to 71% in 2020.

Home languages’ performance has remained stable over the years, with a pass rate of more than 90% since 2016. IsiNdebele and Tshivenda recorded a 99.9% pass rate; IsiXhosa and SiSwati scored 99.6%.

The percentage of distinctions achieved in some gateway subjects, such as business studies, accounting, economics, mathematics, history and English first additional language increased in 2020. However, other gateway subjects saw a slight decrease in distinctions. 

Of the 474 718 learners who wrote English first additional language, 10 301 obtained distinctions. And 7 424 of the 233 315 learners who wrote mathematics received distinctions, which is an increase of 3.2% from 2019. 

There was also an increase of 3.7% in the distinctions obtained in physical science last year. Of the 174 310 candidates who wrote the subject, 6 368 obtained distinctions. 

There were 2 058 learners with special needs who wrote the exams. Of these, 1 757 passed: 943 achieved bachelor’s passes and 582 obtained a diploma pass. There were 653 distinctions by learners with special education needs, and these were in critical subjects. The provinces that had the most distinctions by these learners are Free State (245) and Gauteng (313). 

The class of 2020 has been congratulated for beating the odds, which were stacked against them last year. 

The two major teachers unions, Sadtu and the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), welcomed the results and congratulated their members for going the extra mile to ensure that they covered the curriculum. 

“That we managed to achieve a pass rate of 76.2% in the face of the adversity grade 12 learners experienced in 2020 is beyond expectation. Naptosa congratulates each matriculant who was successful in the 2020 examination. Dedication, resilience, and hard work once again proved to be the elements of success.

“While it is fitting to congratulate the [provincial] education departments, it is our teachers who deserve all the accolades. What matric teachers managed to achieve in the severely compromised teaching time of 2020 is something to behold,” the union said in a statement. 

Sadtu said the decline in the results from 81.3% in 2019 to 76.2% did not come as a surprise, “following the disruptions experienced in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

“The 2020 class deserves our utmost praise for enduring the most challenging year,” added the union. 

Sadtu also praised no-fee schools for continuing with the trend of producing “quality passes”. 

No-fee schools produced 58% of bachelor’s passes, up from 55% in 2019. The number of learners from no-fee schools passing with bachelor’s and diploma levels is higher than those from fee-paying schools. 

“These schools [that] suffered due to lack of resources were the hardest hit by Covid-19 as they had little or no access to blended learning opportunities and, therefore, could not continue learning from home during the lockdown,” Sadtu said. “When schools eventually opened, learners from these schools could not easily adjust to the new Covid-19 environment, because their schools could not meet all the Covid-19 protocols.” 

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Eastern Cape premier Mabuyane lives large amid province’s poverty

Oscar Mabuyane and MEC Babalo Madikizela allegedly used a portion of state funds for struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s commemoration for their own benefit

Constitutional court confirms warrantless searches in cordoned off areas unconstitutional

The law was challenged in response to raids in inner Johannesburg seemingly targeting illegal immigrants and the highest court has pronounced itself 10 days before an election in which then mayor Herman Mashaba has campaigned on an anti-foreigner ticket

A blunt Mantashe makes no promises during election campaigning

ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe told people in Daveyton to stop expecting handouts from the government

Mbeki: Social compact the answer to promises made in ANC...

Former president Thabo Mbeki urged business and government and society to work together to tackle issues such as poverty, unemployment and poor services and infrastructure

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…