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Equal Education (EE) will comment on the 2014 matric results once they are announced. This note is intended to assist journalists, commentators and civil society organisations to frame responses to the forthcoming announcement by Minister Motshekga.


The matric results must be viewed in context. The pass rate, when taken out of context, obscures a number of very important challenges faced by the South African schooling system, and the National Senior Certificate (NSC) itself. When we view the results with broader perspective, a picture emerges that is less rosy – despite important progress by the Department of Basic Education (DBE). Past analysis by EE, notably of the 2013 results, highlighted a number of these challenges. [1]


The pass rate

The NSC pass rate indicates the percentage of students that passed a particular year’s exams and met the minimum requirements to obtain the qualification in that particular year – very little else.  Comparing the matric pass rate across years is problematic, as acknowledged by the DBE: “Examinations like our Matric are simply not designed to compare the performance of the schooling system across years”.[2] The pass rate fluctuates according to various factors, including the number of exam takers in a particular year, and the subject choices students make in a particular year [3]. It is also influenced by the design and assessment of the exam papers – which is not unproblematic for South Africa.[4]


Hence, a rising or falling matric pass rate does not tell us about the quality or performance of the schooling system as a whole. [5]


A very important part of context is how many students never make it to matric. [6]


Lastly, there is real concern and scepticism over whether an NSC actually prepares students for post-school life, the workplace, and further education.  Students who never make it to matric face bleak economic prospects.  Of those that do complete matric, most will find it very hard to find employment in our skills-intensive economy. [7] Only a very small percentage will qualify for tertiary education (though this number is rising) and an even tinier percentage will likely go on to graduate. [8]



According to the DBE’s 2013 National Senior Certificate ‘Technical Report’, a total of 562 112 wrote the matric exam in 2013, and 439 779 learners passed matric – a highly controversial 78.2% pass rate.
But this is not the whole picture. To get a better perspective on the journey of students through the schooling system, we can approximate the cohorts of students who started school together, in various years, and track them through the system (see footnote 6). Here it must be noted that it is difficult to estimate how grade repetition and mortality (to a lesser extent) skews this percentage (see footnote 2), but the general point stands.  To make up for this, we start from Grade 2 where grade repetition is generally lower – a 10 year span.  Using the DBE ‘Education Statistics in South Africa: At a Glance’ estimates (2000-2013) [9], the set of ‘quasi’ cohorts [10] reveals massive drop-out rates between Grade 10 and Grade 12. Approximately half of each cohort drops out before even reaching matric.  The largest drop-out rates are in Grade 10 and 11. [11]

Worryingly there seems to have been a marginal increase in percentage drop-outs.


Cohort Pass Rate

Now looking at the number of student who wrote matric, we can create a ‘cohort matric pass rate’. [12] The spectacular 78.2% pass rate of 2013 is now closer to a 40% pass rate.

Encouragingly (as some have also pointed out [13]), we see an improving cohort matric pass rate, although this should be off-set against the slightly worsening drop-out rate. It should be noted that, given the uncertainty of this estimate, it is not clear to what extent the cohort matric pass rate is really improving.



The DBE’s website states that the NSC should be seen as a measurement of “the opportunities open to our youths” [see footnote 2], which the DBE attempts to do, in principle, by tracking the number of Grade 12 learners who become eligible for a higher education, and then the number of Grade 12 learners who pass Mathematics and Physical Sciences.
Higher Education


In 2013, 171 755 out of the 562 112 that wrote matric (30.6%) met the ‘minimum requirements’ (as defined by Higher Education South Africa (HESA)) [14] to study a Bachelor degree, and 173 292 (30.8%) met the minimum requirements to study for a Diploma. This is an increase from the previous year (2012). According to the 2013 NSC Technical Report, 35 705 more students became eligible to study a Bachelor (a 21% improvement), and 20 411 more students became eligible to study for a Diploma (a 12% improvement). This is promising. However, the minimum requirements to access tertiary study opportunities seem low. Moreover, HESA published a report in 2013 in that evaluated the 2012 NSC question papers. HESA’s conclusion was:
“The emerging trend from the subject reports was that the questions papers had a lot of low cognitive level questions which inevitably failed to differentiate learners and so allowed weaker learners to pass while failing to challenge strong learners. Weaker and stronger learners could pass without putting in much effort, especially as the NSC promotion requirement is set at 30%.” [15]


Furthermore, the DBE’s 2013 Diagnostic Report raised some ‘areas of concern’.[16] Literacy was a big concern (and a recurring theme): In 2013, students struggled to answer questions that required substantiation and argumentation and learners were confused by action verbs and misinterpreted questions. Mathematical skills were poor. In the ‘General Findings’ section the report states: “The majority of subject reports indicate a lack of basic knowledge of concepts which are the prerequisite for higher level thinking.” (pg. 15)


Mathematics and Physical Science

Mathematics and Science are ‘gateway’ subjects, opening up opportunities to those who finish school. Failure to attain adequate marks and skills in these subjects severely limits post-school opportunities.
There has been an upward trend in the pass rate for Mathematics and Physical science: The percentage of Mathematics students who passed Mathematics with 40% and above has risen from 31% in 2010 to 41% in 2013. For Physical Science the percentage has risen from 30% in 2010 to 43% in 2013. However, the number of students writing these subjects has decreased. In Mathematics the percentage of exam takers fell from 49% in 2010 to 43% in 2013. For Physical Science the percentage fell from 38% in 2010 to 33% in 2013. The numbers below are from the DBE’s 2013 Subject Report [17]:






There are also clear performance contrasts between the richest and poorest schools – which may be a result of many factors, importantly the socio-economic context [18], but schools’ access to resources is another factor. To illustrate, in ‘Quintile 1’ schools (the poorest of schools), of the 36 037 who wrote Physical Science in 2013, 11 879 passed with 40% and above (that’s 33%). In ‘Quintile 5’ schools (the top end public schools), of the 33 986 who wrote Physical Science in 2013, 22 487 passed with 40% and above (that’s 66%). In other words the wealthiest fifth of public schools are performing at least twice as well in science. Of the 44 790 ‘Quintile 1’ students who wrote Mathematics in 2013, 12 886 passed with 40% and above (that’s 29%). And of the 50 622 ‘Quintile 5’ students who wrote Mathematics in 2013, 32 440 passed with 40% and above (that’s 64%). In Mathematics the differential is therefore more than double.


Other data, which could tell us more about whether the inequality gap is closing, is seldom made public. This would include analysis that evaluate matric results by careful comparison of rural and urban, township and suburb, home language of learners contrasted with language of instruction and examination, the fee-charging of public and private schools, and former racial classification of schools.  We continue to call on the DBE to be more transparent with this information.



On 30 December 2014 Umalusi – the Council for quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training – released a media statement on the 2014 NSC. [19] It stated that:
“While many subjects have not experienced dramatic content changes from the previous curriculum, a number of subjects have undergone significant changes in content, or in shifts in format.” (pg. 3)


Many subjects saw “major changes in cognitive demand” (pg. 4). Mathematics sees “major changes in format and structure of question papers as well as curriculum”, while Physical Science sees “major changes in depth of content” (pg. 4). This is encouraging, given the 2013 HESA report mentioned earlier, which raised concerns about the NSC’s difficulty.
It has been reported [20] that the 2014 Mathematics and Physical Science results are worse than in 2013, with mathematics significantly worse – probably due to restructuring of the papers and the inclusion of new material.
EE will comment in more depth on these issues when the results are made public.



Despite the problems, it is clear and well acknowledged that the DBE is committed to building a functioning system and a reputable NSC. EE applauds the DBE’s critical self-evaluation. The DBE’s Technical, Diagnostic, and Subject reports are clear and accessible and do not shy away from the challenges that remain.


However, the pass rate can be misleading. Up to 50% of students in South Africa drop out of school before matric. It is clear that students are moving away from Mathematics and Physical Science. Scores are generally very low. Students struggle to read and write. The NSC is met with scepticism by employers and universities, and it is unclear whether the NSC actually equips students to take advantage of higher education at this point. Much work remains.


For Media Enquiries contact:
Nombulelo Nyathela (EE spokesperson) – +27 60 503 4933
Wim Louw (EE Researcher) – / +27 71 685 8919)


[1] EE (2014), ‘Equal Education (EE) Statement on the 2013 Matric Results: Higher Pass Rate but Drop Outs, Poor Quality Passes and Inequality Persist’, URL:
[2] DBE (2014), ‘The Matric Pass Rate. When Should We Celebrate’, URL:
[3] See Van der Berg, S. & D. Shepherd (2010). “Signalling performance: Continuous assessment and matriculation examination marks in South African schools”. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers No. 28/10.

[4] A comprehensive 2014 report by the Ministerial Committee on the National Senior Certificate raises serious concerns about the formulation, design, and assessment of NSC exam papers. The report finds, for instance, that “2013 was by far the worst year for marking problems and this unfortunately coincide with the highest pass rate seen in the NSC” (p148). The DBE’s efforts to address these issues are also mentioned, along with a number of recommendations. See SA Government Gazette, October 2012, Vol. 568, No. 35829, URL:, and the complete report, URL:
[5] More appropriate measures are the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) programme.
[6] See Nic Spaull (2014), ‘Matric is failing SA’s lost children’, Mail & Guardian, URL: but see also footnote 2 and footnote 10.
[7] See pg. 6 of the Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey Quarter 2, 2014, URL:
[8] Department of Higher Education & Training (2014). ‘Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in South Africa: 2012’ (p14), URL:
[9] All these can be found under the DBE’s ‘Statistical Publications’, URL:
[10] A term used by Martin Gustafsson. See: Gustafsson, M. (2011). ‘The when and how of leaving school: The policy implications of new evidence on secondary schooling in South Africa’. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers
[11] This topic needs greater investigation. Martin Gustafsson (2011), using the 2008 National Income Dynamics (NIDS) and 2009 General Household Survey (GHS), cites teenage pregnancy and financial constraints as the most reported reasons.
[12] We used the 2013 DBE NSC ‘Technical Report’ (pg. 59), and the 2000-2003 DBE ‘Education Statistics in South Africa: At a Glance’ reports for 2000 (pg. 8), 2001 (pg. 12), 2002 (pg. 8), 2003 (pg. 8).
[13] See Stephen Taylor’s (2012) ‘A Note on Matric Result Trends’, URL:
[14] See the DBE 2013 NCS ‘Technical Report’ (pg. 25), URL:
[15] See HESA (2013). ‘Report: Evaluation of 2012 National Senior Certificate Grade 12 Question Papers’. Pretoria: HESA.
[16] DBE 2013 NCS ‘Diagnostic Report’, URL:
[17] DBE 2013 NCS ‘Subject Report’, URL:
[18] Taylor, S. & D. Yu. 2009. ‘The importance of socio-economic status in determining educational achievement in South Africa’. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers No. 01/09
[19] Umalusi Media Statement (30 December 2014), URL:
[20] SABC (31 December 2014), ‘2014 maths results worse than 2013’, URL: