/ 25 January 2023

Should we celebrate the 2022 matric pass rate?

'a Matric Pass Means Nothing'
The matric class of 2022 achieved a pass rate of 80.1%,. Photo: Supplied

The matric class of 2022 achieved a pass rate of 80.1%, according to the department of basic education. Given that the pass mark in some subjects is as low as 30%, this figure is nothing to celebrate, particularly as most school leavers will struggle to find employment even having passed matric.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) says the National Senior Certificate pass rate is misleading, arguing that the real matric pass rate — calculated by including the number of learners that dropped out prior to writing their final exams — is actually 54.6%. Only 58% of learners reach grade 12, according to the DA’s calculations. 

There is no question that the high dropout rate is exacerbating youth unemployment, which in the third quarter of 2022 reached 59.6%. Unemployed youth are defined as those not at school, not enrolled at a training or tertiary institution and not employed.

Only 38.4% of matrics who wrote the 2022 matric exams achieved sufficient marks to be accepted to a bachelor’s degree compared with 89.32% of learners who wrote the Independent Examination Board (IEB) exams. More than 98% of IEB learners passed the 2022 exams. The IEB consistently achieves a higher pass rate and more bachelor passes, highlighting just how unequal our education system is becoming.

A bachelor’s pass means that the learner has passed six of seven subjects, achieved at least 50% in four subjects, at least 40% in their home language, at least 30% in their language of learning and teaching and at least 30% for one other subject. But a bachelor’s pass does not mean automatic acceptance at university.

At government schools, poor educational outcomes are exacerbated by failing infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms.

In an article published by the Daily Maverick recently, Omphemetse Sibanda, professor of law and the executive dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo, argued that the education sector needs to be reformed to address inequality and to foster accountability. 

“The notion of us being a meritocracy where everyone has a fair chance to succeed is almost non-existent in South Africa,” he said. Calling equal education in South Africa a myth and wishful thinking, he predicts that, “Educational equality by socio-economic background will persist at current levels throughout the next generation.”

One concern is the poor pass rate in maths and a growing number of learners drop to the easier subject of maths literacy. In 2018, 342 976 learners wrote maths literacy in the National Senior Certificate exams. That number grew to 460 708 in 2022. In comparison, 270 516 National Senior Certificate learners wrote maths in 2018, growing to only 276 241 in 2022. Only 55% of learners passed maths in the 2022 exams.

Unless significant interventions are made, maths outcomes are likely to worsen. In a global study ranking the maths and science abilities of grade five learners, just 37% had even a basic understanding of maths and only 28% had even a basic understanding of science. These outcomes deteriorated even further by the time learners reached grade nine.

The problem is not a lack of funding. South Africa spends about 6% of its GDP on education, which is comparable to other equivalent-sized economies. Rather, we have a quality problem. Many teachers are not subject matter experts. One study found that the majority of grade three teachers were unable to achieve even 50% in grade six maths assessments. 

When learners are not provided with the right academic foundations it’s no surprise that they drop to taking maths literacy by matric. More and more schools, perhaps motivated by the desire for better results from maths literacy than core maths, are encouraging learners to drop to maths literacy. This is not a sustainable solution to the challenge of declining educational outcomes.

In addition to addressing the high drop-out rate, we need to relook at our curriculum content to ensure that it is fit for purpose and equips learners with the necessary skills for the job market of the future. We need to upskill our teachers, train more teachers in the core STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths and implement a culture of accountability in the education space. 

We need to invest in building more schools to address the problem of overcrowded classrooms and ensure an acceptable teacher-learner ratio. Vested interests and political ideology need to be put aside as we reform the entire education system so that each learner has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Kicking the can down the road while educational outcomes deteriorate even further does a great disservice to the youth of our country.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.