Matric pass rate obsession masks South Africa’s real education crisis

The obsession with a blanket ‘matric pass rate’ every year is covering up the real crisis in education in South Africa – a focus that is easily gamed, and only tells half the story.

This is according to activist group, Equal Education, which says that there is an over-investment in grade 12 learning – all to produce a “superficial and misleading indicator of public education quality” – while early education suffers.

The group said that it has repeatedly cautioned against the national preoccupation with the matric pass rate, as it reflects only the performance of learners who managed to stay in school for 12 years, and obscures how many dropped out along the way.

In fact, the group’s data shows that between 40% and 50% of students drop out of school before they reach grade 12, which means that any matric pass rate announced by the department of education is already skewed.

According to the latest figures for 201641.34% of the 2016 cohort have dropped out since grade 10.

Grade 10 drop out rates (2012 – 2016)

Year Grade 10 Cohort Wrote matric Dropout rate
2016 1 139 872 668 612 41.34%
2015 1 146 285 668 122 41.71%
2014 1 103 495 532 860 51.71%
2013 1 094 189 562 112 48.63%
2012 1 039 762 511 152 50.84%

This sentiment has been echoed every year by analysts, who say that, when taking into account all students who started school together, the matric pass rate can be effectively halved in reality.

“For most learners, passing matric well and potentially obtaining a university degree is already largely unattainable by the time those learners reach the end of Grade 3,” Equal Education said.

Looking at pass rates provincially, the data is skewed even further, with urban areas generally bringing up the average for rural areas, further masking widespread problems in basic education in South Africa.

The problem, EE said, is that the system is easily gamed – with focus put solely on the grade 12 pass rate, teachers drone into students how to answer the exam questions correctly , or push students into easier subjects, or hold them back entirely – to chase the ‘perfect score’.

Meanwhile, early childhood development is left in the lurk, with a lack of facilities, learning tools and well-paid and skilled teachers – all needed to ensure that children who start school can also finish school.

“The Basic Education Department has systematically failed to address learner retention. The pass rate bandied about by Minister Motshekga at her January press conference captures only the percentage of learners who have written the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam, but fails to account for learners who never make it to matric, or for the differences in quality of performance among those who pass the matric exams,” EE said.

“The focus of education authorities, and the public glare, must shift from a be-all and end-all preoccupation with matric results, to foundation phase improvements. Reliable information on learning outcomes in these early grades must be shared with the public, and the appropriate remedial action must urgently be implemented.”

Read: Where to get your 2016 Matric results

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Matric pass rate obsession masks South Africa’s real education crisis