The release of final year school exam results in South Africa is frequently met with a dismissive chorus of “you only need 30% to pass matric”. This year was no different, helped along by Twitter and Facebook.
The claim is not a new one. And it has been given credence by academics like Professor Jonathan Jansen - the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and a prominent education commentator – who was quoted saying in 2013 that “[i]t’s an absolute disgrace that you can pass matric with a mark of 30 percent”.
But is it correct?
“This idea that you only need a 30% average to pass matric is simply not true,” said Nicholas Spaull, an education researcher from Stellenbosch University.
Pupils are required to take a minimum of seven subjects. These include three compulsory subjects - usually a first language, a first additional language, mathematics or mathematical literacy and life orientation.
“You need 40% in three subjects (one of which must be your home language), and 30% in 3 other subjects,” Spaull said. If a pupil meets that bare minimum, they will pass even if they fail their seventh subject.
Basil Manuel, president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, echoed Spaull’s comments. “Unfortunately it’s a nice story and the public grasps [at] it but you can’t pass matric with 30%,” he said.
Leketi Makalela, an associate professor at Wits University’s School of Education, said references to a 30% pass “comes from a lack of understanding of the pass requirements for matric”.
Higher Education South Africa has stated that only a “miniscule number” of pupils pass at the lowest possible level. In 2014 this amounted to 411 pupils or 0.1% of those who wrote matric exams.
“If the learner does not satisfy the minimum subject requirements, he will not be awarded with the [National Senior Certificate], even though he may have attained an exceptionally high mark in one or two of the other subjects,” explained Elijah Mhlanga, a spokesman for the Department of Basic Education.
'No averaging of marks'
Mhlanga said that averages don’t determine whether a pupil passes matric. “There is no averaging of marks in the [National Senior Certificate exams]… No learner will be awarded a [National Senior Certificate] if he attains 30%.”
Technically speaking, if a pupil met the minimum requirements and obtained 40% for three subjects (one being a home language), 30% for three subjects and 0% for a seventh subject, then they would pass with a 30% average.
But Manuel said that this was impossible. “A pupil can’t get 0% for a subject because they have to complete a school-based assessment and the exam. I have never heard of a youngster getting 0% as a final mark,” he said.
Conclusion: The claim is misleading
While it is theoretically possible for a pupil to obtain a 30% average and pass, it is extremely unlikely – if not impossible – in reality.
And a matric pass at the lowest possible level won’t get you into a technical college, university or any other tertiary institution.
One of the most pressing challenges facing South Africa’s education system isn’t who passes or fails the final exams but the large numbers of pupils who drop out long before they get to matric.
Edited by Julian Rademeyer