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Education – Quantity vs Quality

10 January 2014, 14:03

There is once again a lot of hype around the 2013 matric results, with some praising the 78.2% pass rate while sceptics criticize the quality of the education provided by government.  Being the questioning type, I decided to dig deeper into the results to uncover what exactly is going on. 

The matric pass rate, 1994 to 2013

If you view a chart of the matric pass rate for each year from 1994 to 2013 there are four distinct trends:

1.       A steady decline from 1994 (58%) to 1997 (47.3%)

2.       A steady improvement from 1997 (47.3%) to 2003 (73.8%)

3.       A 2nd period of steady decline from 2003 (73.8%) to 2009 (60.6%)

4.       A 2nd period of improvement from 2009 (60.6%) to 2013 (78.2%)

So basically we have two points (1997/2009) where the pass rate mysteriously makes a U-turn for the better and one point (2003) where the pass rate mysteriously makes a U-turn for the worse.  Coincidently, two huge events in the educational system occurred in the year prior to 1997 and 2009 respectively:

·         1996 – OBE was introduced

·         2008 – The Senior Certificate (SC) was replaced by the National Senior Certificate (NSC)

Is this a coincidence?  To many it would appear that the government implemented separate bail out strategies to save a sinking ship.  It appears that they succeeded in turning around the situations in both instances, but we must ask, were these implemented to fudge the matric pass rate and/or lower the quality of our education in order to achieve a better pass rate or did they actually result in better service delivery (improved quality) in terms of education, allowing for a better pass rate?  The failure and recent scrapping of OBE and some facts I’ll be presenting point mainly towards the former. 

Regarding the positive turn around after the implementation of OBE, I’m curious as to why the pass rate suddenly headed on a steady downward trend from 2003.  Maybe it was the long term effects of OBE kicking in.  Nevertheless, we are currently going in the right direction in terms of the pass rate at the moment, but I have some serious questions regarding the improving pass rate.

The National Senior Certificate

The Senior Certificate (SC) was replaced by the National Senior Certificate (NSC) in 2008 and as mentioned, this event caused the declining pass rate to suddenly change direction and it’s been on a positive trend ever since.  I asked early whether this was just a ploy to improve the pass rate by lowering standards or if it genuinely resulted in a better quality of education resulting in a better pass rate, so I’d like to summarise what changes the NSC brought in order to answer this question.

Minimum requirements:

·         To obtain a Senior Certificate a candidate had to pass five of the six subjects, two of which had to be languages and only one of these languages had to be passed at 40%. To obtain a pass in the other subjects a candidate could obtain a mark as low as 25% (lower grade pass). The 25% converted pass mark earned the candidate a SC provided the learner satisfied the aggregate requirement of 720. This implies that the candidate could perform extremely well in one or two subjects and obtain 25% in the remaining subjects, provided he/she makes the 720 aggregate requirements.

·         To obtain a National Senior Certificate, a learner must pass three subjects at 40% and three subjects at 30%, one of which must be the home language, passed at 40%. There is no aggregate requirement for the NSC, since the aggregate is made redundant by the specification that three subjects must be passed at 40% and three at 30%.

So in summary, the NSC made it more difficult on the one hand, due to individual subject requirements becoming stricter than they were prior to 2008, but on the other hand the aggregate requirement was taken away, making it a bit easier.  The DBE will tell you that individual subject requirements have been made more difficult, but they won’t tell you that the requirements were relaxed after 1994, where previously 40% was required for five of the six subjects.  Also, the Higher Grade and Standard Grade categories fell away…  Did this mean that the subjects were taught at the standard of the previous higher grade or the standard grade?  The DBE insists that all subjects are taught at higher grade…

Additional subjects

Another big change was the introduction of two new subjects, Life Orientation and Maths Literacy.

·         Life Orientation is a “broad-learning subject that covers non-academic skills needed in life”.  It is one of the three compulsory subjects and is also one of the three subjects where 40% is required to pass.

·         Maths literacy, which is basically standard grade Maths and is also a compulsory subject.  There was talk of a transitional period where a 25% subminimum mark would be accepted.  I’m not sure if this happened, and if so, if this transitional period has ended?

In another coincidence, these two compulsory subjects are two of the easiest subjects.  If there was pressure to push up the pass rate the introduction of a few easy subjects would do the trick, and rightfully so, critics have questioned this.   The DBE even admits that “the value of Life Orientation as an examinable subject in the school curriculum has been questioned.  Given that the assessment is entirely school based, the performance of learners is exceptionally high and hence there are concerns about the reliability of this assessment.  The higher education sector has, as a consequence, excluded Life Orientation from the designated list of subjects”. 

So in other words you need the following to pass:

1.       40% for your home language (see comments below regarding languages)

2.       40% for two other subjects.  So you have one of the easiest subjects, Life Orientation (which has a pass rate above 99% and which does not even count towards Higher Education) and a choice of Maths or the easier Maths Literacy (pass rate was 22% higher than the Maths pass rate in 2013) which are compulsory.  It is no wonder that more students opt for Maths Literacy instead of Maths.  Quoting a DBE report:  “The current ratio of Maths to Maths Literacy stands at 45: 55.  However, it is the intention of the DBE to see more learners taking Maths. This situation is possibly accentuated by the gate keeping practice of school principals, who are desirous of better pass rates and therefore encourage learners to migrate to Maths Literacy”

3.       30% for three other subjects

What a bargain!

Can the NSC get any easier?

Yes it can, this is how:

·         Language compensation which is “5% of the mark attained by the candidate for all non-language subjects, for candidates whose mother tongue is not English or Afrikaans”

·         Standardization – “The purpose of the standardisation process is to ensure that candidates are not advantaged or disadvantaged by variations in standards that may occur from year to year. It is based on the principle of equivalence of standards from year to year”. Effectively, marks can be adjusted up to a maximum of 10%.  “Adjustments greater than 10% can be considered at the upper end to increase the number of distinctions in a subject”. In the case of individual candidates, the adjustment effected should not exceed 50% of the mark obtained by the candidate”.


If you get 19% for a non-language subject and you are not English or Afrikaans, your mark gets adjusted to 20% after language compensation.  Then it’s possible that you may be adjusted up by another 10% due to standardisation, resulting in you achieving a 30% pass for that subject.  That is however in extreme cases.

In 2013, 21 subjects were adjusted:

·         Adjusted upwards:  Afrikaans (home language), Maths Literacy, Ndebele (home language), Tourism, Seswati (home language).

·         Adjusted downwards:  Life Sciences, Maths, Maths (Paper 3), Geography, Hospitality Studies, Computer Sciences Technology, Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Business Studies, Setswana, Tsonga (home language), Venda (home language), Sepedi (home language), Sesotho (home language), Setswana (2nd language) en Sepedi (second language).

Adjustments to languages will have virtually no effect on the pass rate as the average pass rate for languages is over 99%.  The biggest impact on the pass rate would be adjustments to a compulsory subject like Maths and Maths Literacy.  Because more students take Maths Literacy than Maths and because Maths Literacy was adjusted upwards (by 6 points which is quite substantial) while Maths was adjusted downwards, the net result of the adjustments would be an increase in the pass rate.  I’m aware that mark adjustments have been around forever but there is always a risk that it can be used to manipulate the pass rate.

On the subject of languages, I picked up something very interesting.  The pass rate for all black African home languages has been over 99% in the last four years that I examined.  The pass rate for Afrikaans home language has been around 98% while for English home language it has never been above 95.2%.  For 1st additional languages the trend is similar.  The pass rate for all black African 1st additional languages has been over 99% in the last four years I examined, and in six or these languages in 2012, the pass rate was 100%.  The pass rate for English 1st additional language has varied between 94% and 98% and for Afrikaans 1st additional language the pass rate has averaged 93%.  I’m unsure of the reasons why there is such a noticeable difference between the black African languages and the other African languages of English and Afrikaans…?

If you somehow still can’t make it after language compensation and standardization adjustments there are remarks and finally the good old supplementary exams for which you need 40% to pass.  In 2012 the overall pass rate increased from 73.9% to 75.6% after supplementary exams so in reality we are looking at an 80%+ pass rate for the class of 2013

Maths and Science

In a country with skills shortages in these areas, it is imperative that that our children are adequately educated in Maths and Science, Maths especially if you look at how many university degrees require this subject.  As mentioned, many are turning away from Maths and opting for the easier Maths Literacy where the pass rate is more than 20% better.  In 2013, only 43% of the full-time matrics sat for the Maths exam of which:

·         40.5% achieved 40% and above

·         26.1% achieved 50% and above (50% is required for entrance into bachelor degrees in the sciences, commerce and engineering)

·         15.6% achieved 60% and above

·         About 7% achieved 70% and above

In Physical Sciences:

·         67.5% achieved 30% and above

·         42.8% achieved 40% and above

·         25% achieved 50% and above

·         14.4% achieved 60% and above

·         About 6.5% achieved 70% and above

So while there is a positive trend, very few meet the standards which are required by universities. 

What it means to have a NSC

More than 80% of matrics will have received their matric certificates by the time the supplementary exams are over.  But what does it mean to have a NSC?

University of Cape Town

If you want a BSc degree at UCT, you need an Admission Point Score (APS) of 420 (sum of percentages of best six subjects, excluding Life Orientation), which is basically a 70% average, and you need 70% for Maths and 60% for Physical Science.  If you make it, there is still the National Benchmark Test (NBT) which is also taken into account in deciding whether minimum requirements are met.  One needs to also take into account the Race Based Admissions Policy at UCT which may affect these requirements if the student is not white.  

University of Pretoria

If you want to study a degree at UP you need an APS of at least 30 (sum of achievement levels of best six subjects, excluding Life Orientation), which is a 60% average.  For most Bcom degrees you will also need a minimum of 60% for English or Afrikaans and 50% for Mathematics (not Maths Literacy).  For the more difficult Bcom degrees such as Accounting and Law you’ll need an APS of 34 and your Maths mark will need to be 70% and 60% respectively.  When it comes to engineering degrees it gets even stricter as you’ll need an APS of 35, which is about a 70% average, Maths 70% and Physical Science 70%.

Looking at the Maths and Physical Science stats above and taking into consideration the average pass marks achieved by matrics in all subjects it’s clear that well over 90% of students have no chance of accessing these degrees. 

Let’s look at an example of the average student based on the 2013 results (* = Compulsory):

·         Zulu (Home language *) – 62% (APS 5)

·         English (1st additional language *) – 35% (APS 2)

·         Maths Literacy * – 45% (APS 3)

·         Life Orientation * – 73% (APS 6)

·         Life Sciences – 38% (APS 2)

·         Business Studies – 37% (APS 2)

·         History - 46% (APS 3)

The average student (+-80% of them) will pass matric.  They will pass their home language and Life Orientation easily.  That takes care of two of the 40% requirements to obtain a NSC.  Then they will choose Maths Literacy over Maths and between Maths Literacy and their other four subjects they will achieve the minimum requirements to pass matric.  But now this student only achieves an APS of around 17.  Their best mark, Life Orientation, does not count towards university entrance criteria.  They cannot apply for a degree because their APS falls well short of 30 and they did not take Maths.  The gap between the NCS and minimum university entrance requirements is 13/30, 43%.

Now even if a student manages to achieve the minimum university entrance requirements, they still may not be able to study certain degrees as NBTs have been put into place by universities due to the gap between NSC requirements and university requirements.  There are degrees at some universities where the NSC is only weighted at 50% and where the results of the NBT makes up the other 50% when considering a student for that course.  So there is even a bigger gap between the NSC and university requirements.

Dropout rates

A serious question must be asked about the alarming rate of drop outs.  In 2002, 1,261,827 entered the school system at grade 1.  1,055,790 of them started grade 10 in 2011.  This means around 200,000 students were lost.  Then even more alarmingly, only 576,490 enrolled for matric in 2013 meaning a further 480,000 students were lost between grade 10 and grade 12.  A total of about 680,000 students were lost between grade 1 and grade 12.  Something appears to be sinister when taking into account that the large majority of students (70%) drop out in their final three years.  I’d be inclined to think that the closer they are to completion, the less likely they are to dropping out…  Prof Jansen uses the term “Culling” when describing this phenomenon.  “Culling” those unlikely to pass would certainly boost the overall pass rate.  If we look at the dropout rates per province, another huge coincidence takes place:

·         The highest performing province, the Free State with 87.4% pass rate, has the 2nd highest dropout rate of 54.8%.  54.8% of 2011 grade 10 students did not make it to matric 2013…

·         The 2nd highest performing province, the North West with 87.2% pass rate, has the highest dropout rate of 56.5%.  56.5% of 2011 grade 10 students did not make it to matric 2013…


While there is a definite positive trend in the pass rate, all indications suggest that the NSC made it easier to pass matric after 2008 by using superficial means.  Whether this was intentional is the big question. The NSC has most definitely failed to close the gap between the NSC and the standards required at universities and this gap may have in fact become bigger.  It appears that all the DBE is concerned with is passing matrics and improving the pass rate.  This is evidenced by the lack of attention given to the large number of students who drop out before matric.  Questions need to be asked whether this is due to a lack of service delivery (schools, textbooks, teachers) for which any negative reporting of this would be a serious indictment on service delivery provided by government, or whether it is part of a deliberate ploy to increase the pass rate.  When it comes to education in South Africa, we are not even close to the half way line, we have a very long way to go. 

“” “People who complain about matric results forget that pre- 1994 most blacks didn’t get to matric.” – Naledi Pandor.  They still don’t, Naledi.” - Jerm     

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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