Educationists and the official opposition have said South Africa’s “real” public school matric pass rate is just over 55%, as opposed to the 82.9% announced by the department of basic education last week.
They have also taken the department to task for failing to implement measures to improve learner development.
“Our basic education system is seriously challenged and has been so for way too long. If we are to meaningfully change this picture, we must acknowledge and be more deliberate in addressing some key challenges,” according to the head of corporate social investment at Investec, Setlogane Manchidi.
When announcing the matric pass rate last week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said this was the highest in the history of the National Senior Certificate results.
“The class of 2023 showed the greatest determination, fortitude and resolve to overcome all odds, similar to the class of 2022 — a good sign of maturing and resilience,” said Motshekga.
The Independent Examinations Board (IEB) said its class of 2023 obtained an overall pass rate of 98.46%.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) contested the department’s pass rate, saying the “real” rate is 55.3% if learners who dropped out of school are added into the equation.
“The real matric pass rate is calculated by bringing into account the number of learners that dropped out and never made it to matric,” said the DA spokesperson on education, Baxolile Nodada.
But former Gauteng education MEC, Mary Metcalfe, dismissed the DA’s claims, saying quality assurance monitor Umalausi had proven to be effective in the country’s education system.
“The DBE [department of basic education] has a concept of an inclusive bioscope … which means you don’t just look at the 82.9%, you look at other features that affect the performance,” said Metcalfe.
But Merle Mansfield, the programme director at the Zero Dropout Campaign, said it was unfortunate that the department “only alluded to the throughput rate in their announcement, so until they are more candid with the public about the state of throughput and dropout, we cannot know whether 2023 was an anomaly, something to celebrate or the beginning of a new worrying trend”.
In 2023, a report from the 2030 Reading Panel found that 82% of grade four children cannot read for meaning, while 60% leave grade one without knowing the alphabet. This was based on data from the department’s Early Grade Reading Study evaluation, which tracked children from more than 200 schools for seven years.
Only the Western Cape and Gauteng have taken steps to address the literacy crisis by using programmes run by NGOs focused on improving literacy levels, the report noted.
The 2030 Reading Panel are leaders and researchers convened by former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to ensure that all children from the age of 10 can read for meaning by 2030. The report found that “nothing short of a sustained countrywide overhaul of the education system would be likely to yield this result”.
The department said it is exploring ways to improve literacy levels in schools but criticised the report, saying it did not “pinpoint the specific foundational reading skills where learners face challenges as they assess reading using the ultimate skill of written reading comprehension”.
Equal Education researcher Stacey Jacobs said school infrastructure also played a key role in low literacy levels.
“It’s unfair to expect learners to have foundational skills like reading when most of them lack important infrastructure relevant to reading such as libraries, which is important to unlock further learning.”
Placements for the new academic year have again got off to a rocky start, with many learners in rural areas of the Western Cape seeking placement during the first week of school.
The KwaZulu-Natal education department has said only 500 learners had not been placed as of Friday, while the Gauteng education department said all learners had secured places. But protests have been stirred in Gauteng over the quality of these placements.
Trade union Solidarity blamed this on poor planning by the department, which it said “shows the possible consequences of the proposed Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill on school management”.
“The department’s inability to carry out their mandate in terms of the South African Schools Act and their inability to plan, hampers quality education. This poses a danger to the future of our country’s children,” said Johnell Prinsloo, a policy analyst and researcher at the Solidarity Research Institute.
The department’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, has hit back at critics, saying even though the country’s public education system is facing problems, it is thriving.
“The public education system has consistently experienced growth in enrolment over the years, and never a decline. The recorded growth in learner numbers in private education and the profits that follow, have never happened at the expense of public education,” he said in a statement.