Excessive pressure is brought to bear on learners, teachers, principals, and education bureaucrats for the sake of the annual shindig that is the national matric results announcement. The matric pass percentage is a superficial and misleading indicator of public education quality – particularly as extensive analysis reveals an ongoing crisis in primary schooling in South Africa[1]. Early learning is currently crippled by difficulties including overcrowded classrooms and lack of support for early childhood development (ECD) and foundation phase (Grade R to Grade 3) teachers. Shockingly, there is persistent overinvestment in Grade 12, when the largest investment is needed in the early school grades.

Equal Education (EE) has repeatedly cautioned against the national preoccupation with the matric pass rate. For one, the pass rate reflects only the performance of those learners who managed to stay in school for 12 years, and obscures how many dropped out along the way.

Increases and decreases in the annual matric pass rate may be influenced by changes in various factors. For instance, a decrease in the dropout rate could contribute to an increase in the real number of learners passing matric, but a decrease in the overall pass rate. Policy decisions such as the criteria for promoting learners from one grade to the next, or how exam quality watchdog Umalusi decides to standardise matric results across years, has little relation to the quality of learning outcomes but can lead to a drop or increase in pass rates[2].

An uncritical preoccupation with matric results has dangerous repercussions for teaching and learning. Internationally, a narrow focus on test results has been associated with undesirable practices at school level. These include:

  • “Teaching to the test”, when teachers train learners to answer specific test questions rather than focusing on broader content and skills; and
  • “Gaming”, “culling”, or “gatekeeping” when schools hold learners back in a lower grade or encourage them to take different subjects in order to improve a school’s matric pass rate.

In South Africa, the enormous emphasis on a school’s matric pass rate means schools employ these destructive tactics to boost matric rates and avoid being classified as an underperforming school.

The matric exam mass-copying uncovered in the Eastern Cape (EC) and in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN)[3], in particularly poor and under resourced schools, is arguably a symptom of this be-all and end-all perspective. The intense focus on matric performance, and the language of punitive accountability creates fertile ground for perverse and counterproductive incentives.

The matric pass rate must not be viewed as the sole criterion for judging the efficacy of the schooling system, or as the sole arbiter of gains in academic achievement in the country, in a province, or in a school.


If Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga sincerely wanted to share an honest diagnosis of the schooling system with the public, she would use her elaborate stage to report comprehensively on literacy and numeracy outcomes for foundation phase learners (Grade R to Grade 3). Most learners who must suffer an inadequate foundation phase education are the children of the poor and working class.

Socio-economic gaps in cognitive outcomes take root, widen and become more unyielding even before children enter school[4]. The consequence of poor quality early childhood development, and poor quality foundation phase education, is that the opportunity to reduce learning gaps and develop the potential of children, irrespective of their home background, is lost. Children acquire learning deficits in the early grades. This is the root of underperformance in the later, high school grades.

Schools which historically served black learners have remained dysfunctional and unable to teach learners how to read, write and calculate at the appropriate level. By Grade 3, children in the poorest 60% of schools are already three years worth of learning behind learners of more affluent circumstances[5]. By the time these children reach Grade 9, they are five years worth of learning behind.

Learners who cannot read fluently by the end of Grade 4 cannot engage with the rest of the curriculum in meaningful ways. This is primarily because in grades 1 to 3 the curriculum focuses on learning to read, whereas from Grade 4 there is a shift to reading to learn.

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[6].

The necessary level of support from education department district offices is not being provided to the foundation phase grades[7]. Primary schools are less likely to be visited by district managers, circuit managers, and subject advisors, curriculum advisors than high schools. The implications[8] are alarming:

  • Less monitoring of, and support for, the principal and the school’s senior management team (SMT);
  • Less monitoring of the management of learner teacher support materials (LTSM);
  • Less monitoring and support of learner assessment; and
  • Less monitoring of, and support for, teachers.

The neglect of primary school teachers must not be allowed to continue, particularly as most primary school teachers are women. Women are bearing the brunt of teaching in extremely difficult primary schooling environments, while high school teachers are more likely have access to resources such as smart boards and district-level support.


 In addition to the primary education crisis, various systemic challenges in South Africa’s education system continue to impact on matric results.

The 2015 matric results revealed distinct inequality in the performance of the provinces. More urbanised provinces, like Gauteng (GP) and the Western Cape (WC), performed significantly better (84.2% and 84.7% respectively) than rural provinces such as EC (57%), KZN(61%) and  Limpopo (LP) (66%).

Rural provinces such as EC, KZN and LP have the most under-resourced and poorest schools, and consistently record pass rates well below the national average. As our new report shows, rural schools bear the brunt of the infrastructure crisis.

Furthermore, while nationally the share of learners receiving a Bachelor’s degree level pass increased from 28% in 2014 to 36% in 2015, much of this improvement was concentrated in the urban provinces, and the number of Bachelor’s passes in rural provinces actually declined between 7% and 9%[9].

The blanket pass rates reported for each province,  conceals deeper patterns of inequality and the impact of historical legacies. WC, for instance, is a small province with largely urban schools and a large proportion of former white schools. In contrast, EC is a large predominantly rural province with most of its schools from the former homelands of Transkei and Ciskei[10]. These conditions pose very different challenges to education administrations.

While inequality between impoverished and wealthy provinces intensifies, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi recently confirmed the alarming practices that we have repeatedly cautioned the public about. In December he was quoted in the media as saying: “The provinces want to be the best performing at all costs, to the detriment of other learners… And the matric registration numbers have gone down”[11].

In rural provinces such as EC, KZN, and LP, schools have fewer teachers per learner than their urban counterparts and learners often have to walk cruel distances to get to school. All of these factors impact on teaching and learning.

Regional disparities also highlight that education performance in South Africa continues to be strongly aligned with socio-economic status. In 2015 nearly all (82%) of the country’s best performing schools, those with a pass rate of more than 80%, were quintile 5 schools (i.e. wealthy schools). On the other hand, the majority of schools with pass rates below 30% were quintile 1 or 2 schools (i.e. poor schools). The education system continues to reward those who have had a solid foundation phase teaching, and fails those whom due to poverty had an inadequate primary schooling.

This is particularly concerning in light of the research by UNESCO[12], which highlights that internationally, countries with the best education performance tend to be the ones that manage to raise and level the learning bar – thus increasing learning outcomes, while also decreasing inequality in outcomes between learners from different economic backgrounds.


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.

A look at the matric cohort that began Grade 2 together shows the variation in the number of enrolled students from Grade 2 to Grade 10 to matric. EE has consistently drawn attention to the dropout rate.

Table 1: Dropout rate

Matric Year Enrolment in Grade 2 of cohort class Enrolment in Grade 10 of cohort class Grade 12 cohort that wrote matric % Dropout since Grade 10
2015 1,118,690   1,146,285 668,122 41,71%
2014 1,109,201   1,103,495 532,860 51,71%
2013 1,111,858   1,094,189   562,112 48,63%
2012 1,012,892   1,039,762   511,152 50,84%
2011   944,977   1,017,341   496,090 51,24%
2010 1,090,765   1,076,527   537,543 50,07%

Reasons for the substantial number of learners who drop out of school likely include the following:

  • The absence of a solid early schooling foundation (as explained earlier in this statement). Learners eventually find themselves too far behind academically, making learning a demotivating and stressful experience.
  • Schools intentionally discouraging or withholding poorly performing learners from writing matric.
  • Poverty forcing learners to leave school to attempt to find work. 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 of money on transport, or walk great distances daily.


Because of the high dropout rate, it is worth considering the cohort pass rate alongside the general matric pass rate. We define a cohort pass rate as the percentage of learners who were in Grade 2 together, and 11 years later went on to pass matric together.

This metric isn’t perfect – it is influenced by learners who repeat grades or exit the system to go to technical and vocational education training (TVET) colleges. Nonetheless, it is still a far better indicator of the the percentage of South Africa’s youth who actually complete matric than the general matric pass  rate.

Year No of learners that wrote matric No of learners that passed % that passed matric 10 yrs earlier Grade 2 learners (2000 – 2005) Cohort matric pass rate (%)
2015 667,925 455,825 70,7 1,118,690 40,7
2014 532,860 403,874 75,8 1,109,201 36.4
2013 562,112 439,779 78,2 1,111,858 39.6
2012 511,152 377,829 73,9 1,012,892 37.3
2011 496,090 348,117 70,2    944,961 36.8
2010 537,543 364,147 67,8 1,090,765 33.4

Looking at the 2015 and 2014 pass rate in relation to their cohort pass rates gives a more complete picture of the number of learners who have passed matric, since it considers those who were, for a myriad of reasons, not afforded the opportunity to write their final exams.


There is widespread agreement that investment in early childhood development (ECD) can help close the gap between children from affluent and impoverished households[13].

Given that many South African children enter formal schooling with their development potential significantly compromised, investment in ECD is arguably the most cost-efficient fiscal expenditure to directly impact that gap.

But the Department of Social Development’s ECD audit of 2013 reveals that the school infrastructure crisis in this country extends to ECD centres (for instance, one quarter of ECD centres suffer an inadequate number of toilets).

Lack of learning and teaching support materials is widespread, and only 10% of ECD practitioners have a qualification over and above matric, and 25% have received some training in ECD. Appallingly, the average monthly salary of an ECD practitioner ranges from R1 400 to R2 000 per month – and excludes pension fund, medical aid or a housing subsidy[14].

The policy space in which the ECD sector currently operates does not reflect its importance for future development, and is not conducive to the proper implementation of a pre-Grade R year[15].

A systematic quantitative overview of the sector cautions: “ECD first has to become a core function within government, and resources (both financial and human) and authority structures need to reflect this at national, provincial and district level[16].”

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.


We extend our best wishes to the primary and high school learners and teachers who have worked tirelessly this year, in spite of daunting and demoralising circumstances. Every grade is a critical step toward a National Senior Certificate.

It remains the responsibility of the State to provide access to quality education, especially for poor and working class learners. We will not stop fighting to ensure that the State adequately supports public schools, and fulfils that duty.

For further comment:

Tshepo Motsepe (General Secretary of EE) 

Leanne Jansen-Thomas (EE Head of Policy and Training) 

Roné McFarlane (EE Campaigns Researcher) 

Ntuthuzo Ndzomo (Deputy General Secretary of EE) 

*NOTE: Equal Education will also be releasing a media statement subsequent to the announcement of the matric pass rate.

[1] Fleisch, B. (2008). Primary education in crisis: Why South African schoolchildren underachieve in reading and mathematics. Cape Town: Juta.

[2] Spaull, S. (2016). Matric 2015 standardisation matters.


[4] Van der Berg, S. (2015). “What the Annual National Assessments can tell us about learning deficits over the education system and the school career year”. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: 18/15. Department of Economics University of Stellenbosch.

[5] Spaull, N, “Schooling in South Africa: How low-quality education becomes a poverty trap,” in South African Child Guage 2015, edited by De Lannoy A, Swartz S, Lake L & Smith C, 34-41. Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, 2015.

[6] Van der Berg, S. (2015). “What the Annual National Assessments can tell us about learning deficits over the education system and the school career year”. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: 18/15. Department of Economics University of Stellenbosch.

[7] Wills, G. (2016). Limited support for the foundation phase: A misallocation of district resources. Policy brief.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Department of Basic Education. (2015). NSC Examinations 2015: Technical Report

[10] Christie, P. (2013). Space, Place, and Social Justice: Developing a Rhythmanalysis of Education in South Africa. Qualitative Inquiry, 19(10), 775–785.

[11] IOL (12 December 2016) “Matric results: Competition hots up between provinces”

[12] Willms, J.D.(2006). Learning Divides: Ten Policy Questions About the Performance and Equity of Schools and Schooling Systems. In UIS Working Paper No. 5. Montreal: UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

[13] Kotzé, J., The readiness of the South African education system for pre-Grade R. South African Journal of Childhood Education. 5 (2015):1-28

[14]  Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.