South Africa’s strange connection between matric results and elections

South Africa’s matric pass rate for 2023 hit an all-time high at 82.9%, following a trend of significant jumps in election years. A closer look reveals potential manipulation methods, such as selective student participation and eased passing criteria. The controversial lowering of pass marks since 1999 has raised concerns about the true academic value of a matric certificate. Critics argue for diverse educational opportunities beyond traditional academia, challenging the celebration of rising pass rates as a true measure of success.

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By Jan Vermeulen

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced last night that South Africa’s matric pass rate for the class of 2023 is 82.9% — an all-time high for the public school system since at least 1985.

South Africa’s matric pass rate saw significant jumps in the past two years, climbing from 76.4% in 2021.

The same thing happened in 2003, 2013 and 2018.

The pass rate rocketed from 48.9% in 1999 to 73.3% in 2003.

After dropping back to 60.6% in 2009, it climbed to 78.2% in 2013.

It then dipped to 70.7% in 2015 before returning to 78.2% in 2018.

This raises the question — is there an underlying cause for such a regularly repeating pattern in South Africa’s matric pass rate?

There is a common factor that makes all three these periods special — the big jumps in the pass rate always precede the general elections.

In addition to being a great political talking point, many who benefited from the high pass rate will also be able to vote for the first time that year.

The Department of Basic Education’s officials may argue that the higher pass rates before election years are purely coincidental. However, it justifies scrutiny.

Preventing learners from failing

The matric pass rate is a figure which can easily be manipulated through easier exams, mark adjustments, or simply by lowering the standards.

One highly effective tool to increase the matric pass rate is to ensure learners who may not pass the exams do not write them.

This is evident in the confusing figures posted by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and Umalusi regarding the students who wrote matric in 2023.

According to Umalusi’s report released the week before the results, exams were administered to 919,532 learners last year.

Of these, 898,520 were registered with the DBE, and 717,377 were full-time.

However, the DBE released slightly different numbers. It said 897,775 matrics registered for exams, of which 715,719 were full-time.

Yet none of these numbers were used to calculate the actual matric pass rate. For this, the DBE used the number of full-time students who wrote the exams, which it reported was 691,690.

That is a 206,085 discrepancy between the number of registered matrics, and the denominator used to calculate the pass rate.

It also means at least 24,029 full-time students dropped out or deregistered between the start of the year and the exams.

Matric made easier

Convincing matrics to not write the exams rather than fail is only one of the tools used to increase the matric pass rate, though.

The most effective way is to make it easier to pass, and here the government has been particularly active since 1999.

Most controversial was the lowering of the pass marks during the late 2000s.

It is now possible to qualify for university entrance if you have at least 50% in four subjects, 40% in two, and 30% in one — an average of 44.3%.

A diploma pass, which promises provisional acceptance into a University of Technology, requires 40% in four subjects, and 30% in the rest — a 35.7% average.

To pass matric without any entry into an institution of higher learning, students must have 40% in their home language, and 40% in at least two other subjects.

You could also fail a subject (including home language), get at least 30% for the remaining six, and maintain a 33.5% average to pass.

Before it implemented these changes, students had to pass specific subjects grouped according to the “designated subject list” to qualify for university entrance.

Pupils also had to have a minimum of 50% in four designated subjects for admission to degree studies.

Failing a home language also resulted in repeating the year.

The Department of Higher Education revoked the designated subject list on 2 March 2018.

This allowed school students to take easier subjects, avoiding mathematics and physical science, and still qualify for university entrance.

The effect was evident in the 2019 matric pass rate, which hit 81.3% — the first time it exceeded 80%.

A matric pass became so easy that education expert Professor Jonathan Jansen said, “Passing Grade 12 in South Africa is actually quite easy, and it means very little”.

“It is not as if the few who passed and even those who graduated with a so-called Bachelor’s pass have a solid academic education to see them through tertiary studies,” he said.

“In fact, we know most of these students will drop out of university and few would attain the degree within the minimum time.”

Matric results from 1993 to 2024

Matric pass rates are not a useful way to measure the success of South Africa’s education system.

The Department of Basic Education even admitted as much in a 2010 statement amid another controversy about adjusting marks upwards.

“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,” it stated.

“However, the pass rate can serve as a measure of the opportunities open to our youths. If these opportunities increase, then we should celebrate.”

Despite this statement, ministers and other government officials still celebrate an increasing pass rate like a metric for success.

The subconscious (or unconscious) message is that a 100% matric pass rate is the goal. Everyone should be able to get matric.

This is nonsensical. While one could say that everyone who wants the opportunity to attempt matric should have it, not everyone can or should be able to pass.

Opportunities should be available to those not academically inclined, whether through apprenticeships, technical or trade schools, and other avenues.

All children need not — and should not — be pushed through the same school funnel.

The graph below shows the matric pass rate from 1993 to 2024, and the close link between higher pass rates and general elections.

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This article was first published by My Broadband and is republished with permission

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