In three days, on Tuesday 5 January at 6pm, the 2015 matric results will be announced. Each year Equal Education (EE) releases a pre–results press statement as a way of assisting journalists, commentators and civil society organisations to respond to the forthcoming Matric result announcements by Minister Motshekga. 
We do this because for matric results to honestly represent the state of education in South Africa, several contextual factors must be taken into account. The summary below highlights a number of points about the South African schooling system and the National Senior Certificate (NSC) which influence how the upcoming 2015 results should be assessed.
It is important to note that for a number of reasons, the NSC pass rate is a limited measure of the quality and the performance of the schooling system.  The pass rate captures only the percent of learners who have written the test who have met minimum requirements. This fails to account for learners who never make it to matric and for variation in quality of performance among those who pass the test.
A retention crisis
As EE has noted previously, there has been a slight increase in the dropout rate during the last five years, particularly between Grades 10 and 12.  Table 1 below explores the dropout rates by tracking an entire cohort of students starting from grade 2 up until they sit for the matric exam. The table identifies 5 cohorts (2010 -2014).
The table above shows that generally only about half of the matric cohort that began school in Grade 2 reach matric. Most of these learners fall through the system between Grades 10 and 12. These statistics are only slightly mitigated by some learners enrolling in FET colleges.
If half or nearly half of all learners never take matric, this is a major problem in itself and requires specific interventions targeted at the Grade 10-12 level. The Department must do more in order to retain Grade 10 learners and substantially decrease the dropout rate. The Department should conduct in-depth transparent nation-wide research into the causes of the high drop-out rate and must develop effective strategies to address these issues. Some of the causes are of course already known. For example, a 2014 DBE report found that half of public schools have subject specific teacher vacancies between Grades 10 and 12.  Perhaps if learners had teachers for all their subjects they would be more likely to remain in school.
Other reasons for the high drop-out rate likely include:
- Schools intentionally discouraging or withholding poor-performing learners from writing matric. This is called culling. It used as a strategy to boost matric rates and avoid being classified as an under-performing school.  Culling arises partly because of a single-minded obsession over the matric pass rate, one that is as much the fault of the media as the Minister, who likes to pull a single, misleading percentage out of an envelope each year.
- Poverty pushes some young people to drop out and attempt to find work at around the age of 16. This is exacerbated by the relative lack of reward in the labour market of a “mere” matric pass, i.e. those with a standard pass are only slightly more likely to find work than those without.
- Attending school is often costly and burdensome. Many learners must spend significant sums on transport, or walk great distances daily.
- By grade 10 many learners find themselves too far behind academically, making school a daily place of demotivation and distress.
All of the above likely increase the drop-out rate and reduce retention. Whatever its causes, the drop-out rate must be controlled for when using the matric pass rate as an assessment of the quality of the education system. The matric cohort of 2015 is expected to have enrolled for grade 2 in 2005 and for grade 10 in 2013 and matric in 2015. Any analysis of the 2015 Matric results needs to take into account that only an estimated 2 out of every 5 Grade 10 learners in 2013 wrote matric in 2015.
Cohort matric pass rate
For broader perspective and context on the overall matric pass, one should use a “cohort matric pass rate.” We define this as the percentage of learners in grade 2 who pass matric 11 years later. It is therefore a better indicator than the matric rate of the quality of the education system and the percentage of South Africa’s youth who are receiving an education. For example, imagine if 10 learners enrol in grade 2 and nine drop out before graduation. If that one learner who made it all the way to matric passes, the matric pass rate would be 100%! But, 90% of learners would never have received the education they deserve and need. Calculating the cohort matric pass rate helps us to take such scenarios into account when looking at the overall NSC matric rate.
The table below (table 2) tracks the historic “cohort matric pass rate.”
The 75.8% matric pass rate in 2014 translates into only a 36.4% pass rate for the entire cohort that enrolled in grade 2 in 2004. The analysis of 2015 matric results will need to take into account how many of those enrolled for Grade 2 in 2005 ended up writing their matric as a way of calculating the cohort pass rate.
Regional and general inequality in matric results is significant. In 2014, the Western Cape (WC) had the highest proportion of matriculants qualifying for Bachelor’s at 38.8%, well above the national average of 28.3%.  The Eastern Cape (EC) had the lowest proportion of matriculants qualifying for a Bachelor’s at 20.1%.  These results were unsurprising.
Matric performance over the last five years illustrates massive inequalities within education in South Africa.  Rural provinces such as EC, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Limpopo have the most under resourced and poorest schools. They have a high number of schools without water, electricity or sanitation. As a result, they also consistently record pass rates well below the national average.
On the other hand, WC and Gauteng perform better than the average. This is to be expected, with less than 1% of their schools lacking water, electricity or sanitation  and the best teacher to learner ratios in both primary and secondary schools. 
Ultimately, school access to resources is an important factor influencing matric performance. The majority of learners from public ordinary schools with the lowest pass rates (below 30%) are in quintiles 1 and 2.  On the other hand, no quintile 5 school in the whole country recorded a pass rate of less than 20%.  Furthermore, most learners from public ordinary schools who qualify to study towards a Bachelors are from quintiles 4 and 5.
This is illustrated by a 2009 study by Taylor and Yu which explored the influence of socio economic status on educational outcomes in 4 countries – South Africa, Morocco, Russia and the USA.  The study found only 22% of South African learners from the bottom quintiles (the poorest schools) manage to score above the national average, while more than 80% of students in the most well of (quintile 5) schools scored above the national average. 
This study found that performance inequality was significantly greater in South Africa compared to any of the other countries examined and thus that it is harder for a South African learner in a low quality schools to overcome the poor quality of their school to achieve an above average matric score.
The differing and unequal education system between economic classes perpetuates racial inequalities. Class, race and inequality are interconnected in South Africa. The Stellenbosch University Socio-Economic Policy Unit (Stellenbosch Unit) found that 98.3% of all the white pupils who wrote matric passed while only 72.7% of black African pupils did. 
Education is supposed to offer a way out of poverty for future generations, transforming existing patterns of inequality in South Africa. Instead, our school system intellectually dispossesses the black students who attend poor schools – exacerbating our legacy of educational injustice and inequality. 
While interpreting the 2015 results, one must therefore look at which provinces, quintiles, and communities are succeeding and which ones are falling further and further behind. Unfortunately, the DBE usually deliberately covers over the worst of the inequality by refusing to present the results in illuminating ways such as rural vs urban, township vs suburban, former white schools vs former black schools, etc. We once again call on the DBE to do this, on researchers to do this independently, and on journalists to interrogate the question of inequality as much as possible.
Access to tertiary study opportunities
Only 150,752 (28.3%) of the 532,860 learners who wrote matric in 2014 met the minimum requirements to study towards a bachelor’s degree, a decline from 30.6% in 2013.  Diploma qualifications increased slightly from 30.8% in 2013 to 31.3% in 2014. 
The Stellenbosch Unit’s research looked at the 2014 matric exemption figures. 66.7% of white matrics passed well enough to study towards a degree at university and 29.2% qualified to study towards a diploma. On the other hand, just 23.8% of black matrics qualified to study towards a degree at university. 
The level of pass type is extremely important in determining whether learners will have the opportunity for tertiary education. This in turn affects the life opportunities available to matriculants. The unemployment rate in 2014 for those with tertiary education was 14%. The unemployment rate for those with just matric is more than double that – 34%! This is not much better than 42% unemployment rate for those without matric. 
Maths and Science
Opportunities for prosperous lives for South Africa’s youth are particularly limited by their maths and science education. These fields are often described as ‘gateway subjects.’ They are key to meeting minimum requirements to study towards a Bachelor’s or a Diploma and open up a variety of post school opportunities. Therefore, any analysis of matric results should monitor improvements in these two key subject areas.
If one looks just at the percent of those who wrote Mathematics or Science and passed, one would see an upward trend in the pass rate over the last 5 years. For example, for Physical Science, learners who achieved a pass mark at 30% increased from 48% in 2010 and to 62% in 2014. However, this perceived increase in maths and science performance is almost entirely the result of the decline in the percent of learners writing those subjects in the first place. If one instead looks at the percent of the number of people who wrote matric – as Tables 4 and 5 do – one sees that performance in both subjects has stagnated.
Furthermore, in 2014, 23% or 120,535 of all those who wrote matric (532,860) got above 30% for Mathematics. The figures are even lower for Physical Science with only 19% or 103,348 learners of all those who wrote matric passed at 30% or above in 2014. While these figures have at times been lower in previous years, they have also been better, and do not seem to be consistently improving. This is yet another way to question to generally upward trend in the overall matric pass rate. Like the question of retention, the Maths and Science results call into question how much relevance the pass rate on its own has when assessing the matric results.
When one considers that both Mathematics and Science are “crucial gateway subjects” to post school opportunities in science, medicine, commerce, engineering and many other vital parts of society and economy, it is worrying that a small percentage of matriculants are writing and passing these subjects.
Last year the Department flagged the drop in enrolment for Physical Science as an area of concern.  On the other hand, the cause of the decline in writing Maths can be partly explained by the Departments introduction of Maths Literacy in 2006. More and more learners are writing Maths Literacy instead of Mathematics. The number of Grade 12 learners who wrote Maths Literacy increased from 280,836 in 2010 to 312,054 in 2014. 
It is good that all learners are required to do a numeracy-based subject to matric, as this was not the case in the past. But by all expert accounts, Maths Literacy is not even a watered-down version of Maths. It is a dramatically less demanding subject, which does not develop conceptual thought or problem solving. It is unfortunate that its name makes it seem like a substitute for Maths. This can be perhaps interpreted as a strategic move by the Department to improve pass rate figures, both overall and in Maths, by shifting an increasing proportion of students into Maths Literacy. Between 2010 and 2014, the average pass rate mark for Maths literacy is 86% compared to an average pass mark of 52% for Mathematics.  The Department’s efforts to improve pass rates – without improvement in education quality – comes at a cost to children from poorer schools who are not encouraged and often not given the opportunity awarded to study Mathematics.
One in four schools does not even offer Mathematics as a subject for Grades 10 to 12!  The majority of black youth studying in township and rural schools cannot pursue careers in many needed fields of study such as engineering, accounting, actuarial and medical science. These careers are in effect reserved for learners of wealthier schools where Mathematics is offered and encouraged.
Another worrying explanation for the decline in learners enrolling for Maths and Science is the shortage of qualified teachers providing Maths and Science in public schools.  According to DBE, the highest subject–specific vacancies are in Mathematics and Physical Science. 
In grades 10 to 12, 21% of schools report a mathematics vacancy, but the figures are similarly high for a number of other subjects, in particular languages (19% to 20%), life sciences (20%), physical sciences (21%) and accounting (19%). 
The lack of qualified teachers is an important factor in explaining poor performance in matric. A number of recent studies have drawn attention to the role of weak teacher content knowledge in learner outcomes. These studies highlight that among the most serious problems facing the South African education system as a whole is educators lacking the content knowledge and teaching skills to successfully teach the curriculum. 
Each year, the matric pass rate needs to be looked at critically. Past cohort matric pass results have revealed that up to 50% of students who start Grade 2 do not end up writing matric with their class, if ever. The majority of these learners fall to the wayside between Grades 10 and 12. This could be partly explained by principals intentionally withholding learners from writing matric as a strategic move to improve matric performance, under pressure from district and provincial education officials, who are in turn under pressure from the Minister, the media and the broader public. Mathematics and Science pass rates are generally low, with an alarming decrease of learners enrolling and writing Mathematics and Science. In addition, Mathematics is not always offered and encouraged in the poorest public schools.
While thousands of government officials and teachers do their level best, in the end our education system is doing very little to undo the economic and racial inequalities of the past. Students from the bottom school quintiles continue to underperform due to the poor physical condition of public schools as well as the poor instruction in key subjects such as Maths and Science by well resourced, skilled and qualified teachers. The cause lies not simply in the performance of a particular Minister but in a systemically unequal education system, sustained by race and class interests, that perpetuates a reality were learners who attend dysfunctional schools continue to join the ranks of the unemployed and the badly paid. On the other hand, students who can afford school fees and who attend functional, wealthier schools attain higher qualifications and occupy the upper end of the labour market. A serious and comprehensive review of the current education system in South Africa is needed to break this cycle.
For Media Enquiries contact:
Ntuthuzo Ndzomo (EE Deputy General Secretary) – +27 72 931 4343
Yeukai Mukorombindo (EE Research) – +27 84 598 8078
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: https://www.equaleducation.org.za/article/2014-01-07-equal-education-ee-statement-on-the-2013-matric-resultshigher-pass-rate-but-drop-outs-poor-quality-passes-and-inequality-persists; EE(2014) ‘Equal Education Statement on the Upcoming 2014 Matric results’ Thursday 1 January 2015 https://www.equaleducation.org.za/article/2015-01-02-on-the-upcoming-2014-matric-results
2.DBE (2014), ‘The Matric Pass Rate. When Should We Celebrate’, URL:http://www.education.gov.za/Home/MatricPassRate/tabid/615/Default.aspx
3.EE (2014) ‘Equal Education Statement on the Upcoming 2014 Matric results’ Thursday 1 January 2015 https://www.equaleducation.org.za/article/2015-01-02-on-the-upcoming-2014-matric-results; EE Statement “On the 2013 Matric Results: Higher Pass Rate but Drop outs, poor quality passes and inequality persist” Monday 6 January 2014 https://www.equaleducation.org.za/article/2014-01-07-equal-education-ee-statement-on-the-2013-matric-resultshigher-pass-rate-but-drop-outs-poor-quality-passes-and-inequality-persists
4.Data from the ‘DBE’ Education Statistics at a Glance Estimates’ and 2014 ‘NSC DBE Technical Report’. 2015 matric cohort taken from: All Africa (31 December 2015) “South Africa: UMALUSI Approves Release of Matric Results” http://allafrica.com/stories/201512310957.html
5.‘Table 6: Vacancies by grade and province’, p.12 Second detailed indicator report for Basic Education sector.” Published by DBE 16 June 2014
6.Herald Live (25 January 25 2014) “Pupils ‘culled’ to improve pass rates” http://www.heraldlive.co.za/pupils-culled-to-improve-pass-rates/
7.Data from the ‘DBE’ Education Statistics at a Glance Estimates’ and 2014 ‘NSC DBE Technical Report’.
8.2014 NSC DBE Technical Report, p.61
10.“Figure 5: Comparison of NSC passes between provinces” 2014 NSC DBE Technical Report, p.60
11.‘Table 31: Schools with water, electricity and fencing.’ p.40 “Second detailed indicator report for Basic Education sector.” Published by DBE 16 June 2014
12.‘Figure 11: Distribution of learner to classroom ratio’ p.42 “Second detailed indicator report for Basic Education sector.” Published by DBE 16 June 2014
13.“Table 14: Pass rates within different percentage categories by quintiles” 2014 NSC DBE Technical Report, p.70
15.Taylor, S & D. Yu. 2009 “The importance of socio economic status (SES) in determining educational achievement in South Africa” Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers No. 01/09
17.“School system replicating apartheid” Article by L. Jansen. The Mercury. 24 Nov 2015 http://beta.iol.co.za/mercury/school-system-replicating-apartheid-1949811
19.2014 NSC DBE Technical Report, p.60
21.“School system replicating apartheid” Article by L. Jansen. The Mercury. 24 Nov 2015 http://beta.iol.co.za/mercury/school-system-replicating-apartheid-1949811
22.2014 SA Stat Report, “Employment, unemployment, skills and economic growth” http://www.statssa.gov.za/presentation/Stats%20SA%20presentation%20on%20skills%20and%20unemployment_16%20September.pdf
23.Data extracted from 2010 -2013 DBE ‘Education Statistics at a Glance Estimates’ & 2010 -2014 ‘NSC DBE Technical Reports’
25.2014 NSC DBE Technical Report, p.29
28.“Shocking math figures a sign of new bantu system –EE”http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Shocking-maths-figures-a-sign-of-new-Bantu-education-system-EE-20150716
30.Figure 5: Vacancies by Grade and Subject, p.10 “Second detailed indicator report for Basic Education sector.” Published by DBE 16 June 2014
31.“Second detailed indicator report for Basic Education sector, p.10” Published by DBE 16 June 2014
32.Fleisch, B. 2008. Primary Education in Crisis: Why South African schoolchildren underachieve in reading and mathematics. Cape Town; S. Berg, S. Taylor, N. Spaull & P. Armstrong. 2011. “Improving Education Quality in South Africa. Department of Economics, University of Stellenbosch; Spaull, N. 2011. “A preliminary analysis of SACMEQ III South Africa”. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers No. 11/11; Carnoy, M., L. Chisholm et al. 2008. “Towards Understanding Student Academic Performance in South Africa: A Pilot Study of Grade 6 Mathematics Lessons in South Africa”. Report prepared for the Spencer Foundation. Pretoria: HSRC