2019 pass rate: A milestone for the country’s education system

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The class of 2019 made history by becoming the first cohort since South Africa became a democracy to breach the 80% pass rate. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga was visibly excited when she informed the nation about the 81.3% national matric pass rate. This represents an improvement of 3.1% from 2018, which was 78.2%. 

Motshekga said a total of 787 717 candidates sat for the 2019 National Senior Certificate Examinations countrywide, making this examination “the second largest enterprise to the national general elections in the country”. She said the pass rate confirms the fact that the standard and quality of the country’s education is maturing and stabilising. 

The success of the 2019 national senior certificate (NSC) can also be seen as Motshekga’s own personal accolade. Since she took over in 2009 as the basic education minister, the pass rate was stuck in the 60% to 70% range, and catapulting it over into 80% threshold is quite an achievement for her. 

Free State reclaimed the top spot with its 88.4% pass rate, an improvement of 0.9% from 2018. It was followed by Gauteng, which achieved 87.2%, a 0.7% decline from 2018. Western Cape, another best-performing province, posted 82.3%, a 0.8% improvement from 2018.


Provinces that traditionally performed poorly, especially those serving mostly rural communities such as Limpopo, North West, Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and Eastern Cape have also improved their pass rates. 

North West topped the list with its 86.8% pass rate, an improvement of 5.6% from 2018. KwaZulu-Natal achieved 81.3%, an improvement of 5.1% from 2018. Mpumalanga’s 80.3% was a 1.4% improvement from 2018. The Eastern Cape and Northern Cape tied at seventh, with both achieving 76.5%. The pass rate in the Eastern Cape improved by 5.9%, making it the most improved province, while the Northern Cape improved by 3.2% from 2018. Limpopo completes the list with a 73.2% pass rate, an improvement of 3.8% from 2018.

The examinations also proceeded without any reports of major irregularities such as the leaking of question papers. In the past, the credibility of the examinations has been tainted due to security lapses at some of the centres where question papers were kept. Umalusi, the education quality assurer, was satisfied with the overall performance of the system and welcomed the tight security measures the department of basic education (DBE) introduced before, during and after the examinations. 

Dr Mafu Rakometsi, Umalusi’s chief executive, said the DBE should be commended for managing and administering an examination of this scope and size. He said they gave the results a stamp of approval, as there were fewer cases of systemic irregularities that could have compromised the overall integrity and credibility of the 2019 examination. 

Other noticeable positives from the 2019 pass rate include, among others, an increase in the number of female learners achieving bachelor’s passes; all the 75 education districts achieved above 60%; and more learners from schools serving poor communities attained a bachelor pass. 

Commenting on the achievement of the 2019 matric class, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “These results are a triumph and a clear signal that government’s substantial investment in education, in pupil and teacher support and in educational infrastructure is yielding results.” He added:  “South Africans can be proud that education, like most aspects of our nation’s development, is on an upward trajectory, which should inspire all of us to work together to accelerate and maintain excellence.”

While commending the country’s high pass rate, experts said the matric results should be seen as a culmination of a 12-year academic journey that starts early on and must be preceded by a sound early childhood development (ECD) programme. They call for greater and focused attention on the early learning phases instead of only on grade 12. They also there should be better policy co-ordination and clarity to ensure the smooth implementation of the ECD programme. 

Learners who are exposed to early learning in their formative years, they say, are likely to do well in the higher grades. Recent reports on the global literacy and numeracy tests revealed the dismal performance of South African learners compared to their counterparts from economically poor SADC countries. According to the study 78% of South African grade four learners cannot read for meaning in any language.

Ramaphosa strongly believes ECD should form the basis of the country’s education system. “Early-grade reading is possibly the single most important factor in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality,” said Ramaphosa, adding that the back of poverty can only be broken if we educate the children of the poor. 

Writing in a Mail & Guardian 2019 November edition, Cecile Kiley of the Read Institute also emphasised the importance of ECD, and said early childhood learning gives children a head start in life. Kiley said it is universally agreed that the first 1 000 days of a child’s life hold the key to unlocking their lifelong potential, and that by the age of five, 90% of the child’s brain will have developed. 

She said there is a vast difference between children exposed to ECD and those who are not. “The former are streets ahead, and this advantage becomes almost exponential as the years unfold,” said Kiley. 

Motshekga assured a cabinet lekgotla recently that the DBE is on course to offer a fit-for-purpose modern education, with ECD as its core feature. She said she has already taken over the administration of ECD, which used to fall under the department of social development. She also believes that “a better way to start building the future is to focus on early learning”, adding that early learning is the foundation for cognitive development.  

Said Motshekga: “For us to realise our mission of achieving a high performing and quality basic education system in our lifetime, we have to re-imagine the whole concept, definition, curriculum, and funding of ECD. If we get early learning right, experts say, it will further result in better school enrolment rates, retention and academic performance.” – Thabo Mohlala

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