We should stop pretending that all is well in our schools just because the matric pass rate is better than expected.

Every year, at a glitzy National Senior Certificate (NSC) results ceremony akin to the Oscars, the Minister of Basic Education triumphantly announces our Grade 12 pass rate and praises those provinces that achieved the highest pass rate. There is very little interrogation of what the pass rate actually means, and few people realise that it is just one indicator of the health of our education system – and a flawed one at that.

Before Covid-19, matric pass rates had been on an upward trajectory, reaching 81 percent in 2019. In 2022 the rate was a slightly lower at 80 percent, in spite of the hugely negative impact of the pandemic. This is what Minister Motshekga describes as a ‘system on the rise.’

What these pass rates hide is the reality of large numbers of pupils dropping out or staying behind for a year or more before writing their final exams. The throughput rate at which learners starting in Grade 8 (the first year of high school) pass matric in the expected five years is equally sobering. Only 50% get through matric in the expected time. The rest fail, drop out or repeat years. A 2021 paper by education experts at the University of Stellenbosch found that between 55 and 59 percent of pupils are over-age in Grades 10 to 12. Researcher Martin Gustafsson has shown that only 55 percent of young people aged 23 to 27 successfully completed 12 years of schooling.

Matric pass rate not reliable indicator of improving learning levels

It is surprising that the latest matric results do not reflect the massively negative impact that Covid-19 had on South African learning levels. Research undertaken during the pandemic revealed that learning losses caused by school closures and other disruptions amounted to a year or more of effective learning. It is likely that younger children were affected the most, and that these impacts will reveal themselves in years to come. However, when the matric results were released in January 2023, professor Nic Spaull expressed surprise that Covid -19 ( the largest negative blow to our education system) had produced “the largest positive shock in matric passes and bachelor passes ever seen.” He asked for more information and transparency on how Umalusi, the council that sets and monitors standards for education, had ‘standardised the results’.

Stellenbosch professor Servaas van der Berg, national research chair in the economics of social policy, expressed concern that the high matric pass rate in spite of the learning losses caused by the pandemic would “seriously erode public confidence in the matric results and thereby endanger the integrity of the National Senior Certificate examinations”.

It seems fair to conclude that matric pass rates cannot be thought of as a reliable indicator that learning levels are improving in our schools.

The misleading focus on the matric pass rate led President Ramaphosa to announce in his 2023 State of the Nation speech that there was a ‘silent revolution’ under way in basic education. But even a cursory reading of the bigger picture shows quite the opposite.

More than 80% of our Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. In 2019, only 37% of Grade 5 learners had some basic mathematical knowledge. In 2021, more than half of Grade 1 learners did not know all the letters of the alphabet after a year of schooling.

South Africa performs very badly in international tests compared to other countries, many of them poorer than us. In the 2019 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, South Africa’s Grade 9 learners — on a maths test designed for Grade 8s — placed us stone last out of 39 participating countries. Similarly, in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, South Africa had the lowest average reading literacy score out of 50 participating countries.

Reform measures

It is time to have an honest conversation about the state of our schools, starting with a diagnosis that goes well beyond the NSC pass rate. This needs to include an analysis of the poor quality of teaching, the lack of accountability for weak teaching, teacher absenteeism and the power of the South African Democratic Teachers Union to prevent effective accountability measures from being implemented.

In the CDE’s new series of five reports on the education system, we recommend systemwide reform centred on improving the quality of teaching. This involves:

Improving teacher performance with higher standards of teacher training, strengthening teacher support and the recruitment of excellent foreign teachers in priority areas such as maths and science.

Raising accountability levels by bringing back the Annual National Assessment (ANA) tests for grades 1 to 9, reinvigorating the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit, and giving principals more power over the appointment and management of teachers in their schools.

Tackling corruption in the education system (e.g. prosecutions, protection for whistle-blowers) and introducing measures that weaken SADTU’s stranglehold on education departments.

Installing fresh leadership in public education: South Africa needs a new minister of basic education and a new top team in the national department to drive and achieve systemwide reform against firm targets, budgets and deadlines. Equally important, the MMCs and heads of department in charge of provincial education departments need to be determined, capable reform leaders. The President’s full support is required for the tough political decisions essential to improve performance.

Momentum for change can be created by the mobilisation of a broad cross-section of leaders outside of government: churches, NGOs, advocacy groups, individuals, civic bodies, parents, principals, teachers, learners, and especially business. These groups need to coalesce around a common set of minimum demands for systemwide reform.

In the lead up to the 2024 general election, the focus should be on ensuring that fixing South Africa’s schools is one of the key priorities in the election campaign: voters and media need to force political parties to inform voters on how they will deal with cadre deployment, corruption, accountability and other issues that are essential if we are to drive schooling performance to higher levels and off the bottom of the international tests.

We should stop pretending that all is well in our schools just because the matric pass rate (of those who actually write) is better than expected. South Africa has a deep crisis in its schooling system, and it is long past time that we did something significant about fixing it.

Ann Bernstein is head of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE). This article is based on ‘The Silent Crisis: Time to fix SA’s schools’, a new series of five CDE reports.

Article published by the News24