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Frequently asked questions: SA's matric results

NOTE: This FAQ was updated with the most recent data on 3 January 2018.

1. Can you pass matric with a 30% average?

While it is theoretically possible for a pupil to obtain a 30% average and pass, it is extremely unlikely – if not impossible – in reality.

Experts say this belief comes from a misunderstanding of the matric pass requirements. Pupils are not passed or failed on the average of their marks. In order to pass a pupil needs to obtain at least 40% in three subjects (one of which must be a home language), and 30% in three other subjects.

READ: Can you really pass matric with a 30% average? The claim is misleading

2. What does the matric pass rate tell us about the quality of education in SA?

While the matric pass rate grabs the most headlines, it is not suitable - when used in isolation - to assess the state of South Africa’s education system as a whole.

The department of basic education concedes this: “Contrary to popular belief, the matric pass rate on its own is not a good measure of academic achievement in the schooling system, nor was the pass rate ever designed for this.”

The matric exam does not allow for year-on-year comparisons of the education system, but rather determines the opportunities a pupil can pursue after school.

READ: Why the matric pass rate is not a reliable benchmark of education quality

3. What other assessments provide insight into the education system?

No single assessment - such as the matric results - can provide comprehensive insight into South Africa’s education system.

There are a number of datasets available to assess the state of South Africa’s education system. These include the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ). A 2012 study, which used SACMEQ data, found that while 71% of children in Grade 6 were functionally literate, only 58.6% could be considered functionally numerate.

South Africa’s Grade 9 pupils were placed 38th for mathematics and 39th for science out of 39 countries in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study found that 78% of the country's Grade 4 pupils could not "read for meaning or retrieve basic information from the text to answer simplistic questions”. South Africa ranked last out of the 50 countries who participated.

READ: Assessing South Africa’s schooling system

4. What do people mean when they speak of the ‘real’ matric pass rate?

The matric pass rate was 78.2% in 2018. This represents the percentage of pupils who wrote the matric exams and passed.

When people refer to the “real” matric pass rate, they mean the throughput pass rate or the percentage of pupils who started school in Grade 1 that passed matric 12 years later.

A total of 400,761 pupils passed their matric exams. This represents 35% of the 1,141,731 students who started Grade 1 in 2007. (Note: The Grade 1 year is unusually large because pupils often repeat the year. When Grade 2 is used as a based year for comparison the "real" matric pass rate is 40%). 

But this calculation has been criticised by education economist Martin Gustafsson.

South Africa has high repetition rates, with 15% of Grade 1 pupils repeating the year in 2015. This results in grades swelling due to the repeating pupils. Using these earlier enrollment numbers to calculate the percentage of students that ultimately pass, produces a lower “real” matric pass rate.

Data from the department of basic education shows that in 2016 an estimated 50% of people aged 22 to 25 had completed Grade 12.

READ: The flaw in SA’s ‘real’ matric pass rate figure (as calculated by the EFF & DA)

5. What percentage of South African schools are ‘dysfunctional’?

Results from international, standardised tests show that between 75% and 80% of South African schools can’t impart the necessary skills to pupils.

Pupils in these schools are more likely to be functionally illiterate (unable to read a short and simple text and extract its meaning), functionally innumerate (unable to interpret common everyday units of measurement) and perform significantly worse in both science and maths.

READ: Are 80% of South African schools ‘dysfunctional’?

Have you seen a claim about the matric results that needs checking? Leave a comment below or tweet us: @AfricaCheck.

Additional Reading

How well does matric measure the health of our education system by Stephanie Allais

The when and how of leaving school by Martin Gustafsson

A note on matric result trends by Stephen Taylor

South Africa’s Education Crisis: The quality of education in South Africa 1994-2011 by Nic Spaull

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