The Matric Results Debate: Transforming Our Education System

Wednesday, 3 March, 2010 - 13:19

The majority of poor pupils attend school in the rural areas and townships in South Africa. These schools lack resources and are unable to produce learners who can compete with those who come from former Model C schools. These schools struggle to produce matriculants who meet the university admission requirements. Transformation of the education system cannot happen without ‘dedicated, hard-working, motivated and well-educated teachers’. Township and rural schools need to be capacitated to be able to provide education to a satisfactory standard

In 1998, 1 550 790 children entered classrooms around South Africa to start Grade 1 (EDOEC, 2010). It was a great achievement; as the government led by Nelson Mandela, had set itself a mission to get every child into a classroom and committed itself to the “Establishment of a quality-driven public school system available to all South African children,” (SAIRR, 2010:2). For this objective to be realised, most of those 1 550 790 children would need to enter a quality-driven education system and would then come out 12 years later armed with good knowledge. However, 12 years on, this is not the case. On their journey from Grade 1 to Grade 12, about one million of those children fell by the wayside. By 2009, only 551 940 scholars registered for the matric class. That is a staggering drop-out rate of 64 percent (Timeslive, 2010). 

There are many theories as to what happened to the rest along the way, including falling victim to the HIV and AIDS disease. But most of them are likely to have dropped out due to poverty, pregnancy and the lack of a culture of learning in some communities. When the results were announced in 2010, only 334 609 (60.6 percent) passed matric (News24, 2010). Of those who passed, only 109 697 achieved a university entrance. Astonishingly, the pass rate in Mpumalanga and Limpopo was less that 50 percent, and only 51 percent in the Eastern Cape. Basically, one in every two matriculants in these provinces faces a bleak future. And when you consider the five-year trend, a cold shiver races down one’s spine.

Consider that in 2004 the pass rate was 70.7 percent; by 2006 this had dropped to 66.6 percent. There was a marginal decrease to 65.2 percent in 2007, and then a further dip to 62.5 percent in 2008 (South African Democratic Teachers Union, 2010). If this trend continues, the rate will have dipped down to 56 percent by 2011. And who knows where we will go to from there? An even scarier picture emerges when you look at the subject achievements and see that only 46 percent passed mathematics and 37 percent passed physical sciences. Preliminary results show that in 2009 some 60.7 percent of those who wrote the matric exams managed to pass, with 19 percent doing well enough to be admitted to study at university. In 2008, the pass rate was 62.6 percent, with 20.1 percent passing well enough to be admitted to study for a Bachelor’s degree at university (SADTU, 2010).

However, pass rates must be carefully analysed. A reduction in the drop-out rate from Grade 10, and a consequent rise in the number of matriculants, can result in a decline in the pass rate as has been the case with 2009 matriculants. Similarly, as a result of the emphasis on the pass rate, schools and education departments have been pressured into excluding candidates uncertain of passing, hence the increase in the drop-out rate. The high drop-out rate from Grade 10 is a great concern indeed. As a result, over 40 percent of learners never reach matric and are not even part of the poor examination results (SIARR, 2010).

Pass rates generally give us a global picture of the country or a province, but we need to know more. South Africa is the country with the greatest inequality of wealth and income in the world. It is therefore vital to analyse educational progress in terms of how different sections of our society are doing. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), for example, is the only province to improve its pass rate, which increased by 3.5 percent to 61.1 percent. But did this improvement occur at the top or the bottom? An example of this is that in 2008, in KZN, 99.5 percent of white students passed, with 73.9 percent attaining adequate grades for university entrance, whereas only 53 percent of black students passed, with 13 percent at university entrance level (St Marys School, 2010). It is necessary to break the 2009 results down by municipal area and by former departmental classification of the schools, amongst other indicators, in order to take this debate further. 

It is crystal clear that there are disparities in the quality of education that township and former model C schools receive. Many well-off pupils attend former Model C schools, which are still well-resourced. Conversely, the majority of poor pupils attend poorly-resourced township and rural schools, which are not capable of providing education to a satisfactory standard. The Sunday Times released a survey in late 2009 revealing the Top 100 schools in the country. More than 90 of these were former Model C schools. It is likely that South Africa’s former Model C schools are responsible for the majority of the country’s university entrants.

The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, was correct in her statement that, “We have not yet turned the corner in education,” (EDOEC, 2010). In general, her frank and self-critical assessment of the matric results should be welcomed. 2010 will be another difficult year due partly to the disruption to education as a result of the FIFA World Cup. Over the next few days, weeks and months the question for the country should not be how to increase the pass rate in 2010 by 2 percent, but rather how to increase the pass rate by 10 percent over 10 years, and by 20 percent over 20 years.

Way forward for improving 2010 matric exams

Included in our understanding of ‘resources’ should be well-trained, well-supported, well-remunerated teachers. No transformation of South African education can take place without dedicated, hard-working, motivated and well-educated teachers. We must hold teachers accountable for high standards, but at the same time we must improve their working conditions, which are often very difficult in township and rural schools with large classes, inadequate staff rooms, and too little in-service training. At the same time we must look for innovative ways to expand the teaching profession.

There needs to be an improvement in the quality of standards and assessment. Minister Motshekga stated that examination standards will be maintained, because “through maintaining the standards of our examinations we are able to assess the shortcomings in the quality of learning and teaching.” This should be welcomed. By the same token, we must continue to assess at other levels, and publish these findings. For example, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) conducts important numeracy and literacy assessments at certain primary school grade levels every two years. The 2003 Grade 6 assessment showed that only one in 1000 learners in township schools was adequately numerate, compared to over 62 percent in former model C schools (SIARR, 2010). This same group forms part of the matriculants of 2009, and their poor numeracy proved an accurate predictor.

Another crucial element in moving forward would be that of community mobilisation and organisation. Minister Motshekga has repeatedly made progressive calls for community involvement in education. In announcing the results she said, “We will continue to mobilise our communities to involve themselves in the education of our children throughout the year. As President Zuma has said, ‘Education is a societal issue’.” President Zuma echoed this when he said, “I call on parents and communities to truly place education at the forefront of our national agenda,” (EDOEC, 2010:12). In 2010 communities should be in the forefront of building a people’s movement for education for a better future for all our children.

It should be noted that learners who work with dedication usually improve their chances of avoiding failure and achieving success. Communities could play a critical role in mentoring and motivating our learners in this regard. Unfortunately, outcomes-based education (OBE) has not been as successful for the vast majority of our learners who are both disadvantaged and relatively less resourced than their counterparts in model C schools. As President Zuma eloquently explained, “The achievement of parity in the distribution of resources is paramount to quality learning and teaching. We still have schools that have to work with very little resources, while others have more than enough,” (EDOEC, 2010:13).

Overall, the transformation of education needs to be in the direction of quality and equality for all, or else we will not achieve a sustainable improvement in South Africa’s matric results.


-  Thabile Sokupa is Project Coordinator at Afesis-corplan. This article was first published in the February/March 2010 edition of The Transformer and is republished here with permission from Afesis-corplan.

Related organisation(s): 
South African Democratic Teachers' Union

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