Covid-19 to hammer matric pass rate, experts warn

Pupils lost more than half a year of classes because of disruptions, with rural schools likely to be hit hardest as many lack access to online learning

16 January 2022 - 00:00
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Basic education minister Angie Motshekga is expected to release matric results on Friday.
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga is expected to release matric results on Friday.

The 2021 matric pass rate will be lower than 2020 after pupils lost more than half a year of classes in Grade 11 as a result of Covid disruptions, according to academics and a principals’ association.

Prof Chika Sehoole, the dean of the education faculty at the University of Pretoria, forecast the pass rate would decline by five to 10 percentage points from 76.2% in 2020.

Basic education director-general Mathanzima Mweli told a standardisation meeting convened by education body Umalusi on January 6 that “the crucially important foundation that Grade 11 work builds in preparation for Grade 12 was weakened” after last year’s matrics lost more than half of their Grade 11 year.

“We will therefore see the deleterious effect of lost teaching time, in particular on those subjects that are time intensive such as the languages, and subjects that are heavily dependent on language for utility, such as mathematical literacy.”

He said the 2021 matric cohort was “deprived of the advantage of revisiting subject content across multiple sessions with good, specific and focused feedback from teachers”.

A total of 700,604 full-time candidates wrote the 2021 exams administered by the department of basic education and the results will be released on Friday. The results of private school pupils, who wrote exams conducted by the Independent Examinations Board (IEB), will be released on Wednesday.

Sehoole said that despite the accelerated teaching programme introduced for matrics last year “it could not replace the lost time in 2020 when they were in Grade 11”.

Rotational teaching also led to many gaps in learning, he said.

“Urban schools were able to continue with online learning [during the lockdown] which mitigated the loss in terms of school attendance, whereas those opportunities weren’t available for schools in rural areas.”

Last year’s matrics received a minimum of 20 days of extra tuition during holidays for six to eight hours per day, according to Mweli.

Prof Nicky Roberts from the department of childhood education at the University of Johannesburg expects both the pass rate and the number of bachelor passes to decline.

“A matric is a two-year programme so the interruption in Grade 11 is significant. The matric class of 2021 had a far greater disruption to their matric year than the class of 2020.”

However, she said that the pass rate was the least interesting indicator. “I think more interesting is the proportion of students who are passing at the National Senior Certificate level, higher certificate, diploma and bachelors’ pass levels.”

Rotational teaching also led to many gaps in learning

Prof Sylvan Blignaut from the education faculty at Nelson Mandela University said many overcrowded, deprived and disadvantaged rural schools were forced to implement platoon and rotational schooling whereby pupils attended schools on alternate days.

“The continued loss of teaching time definitely adversely affected curriculum coverage for the class of 2021,” Blignaut said.

Prof Labby Ramrathan from the University of KwaZulu-Natal expects the pass rate to drop by two percentage points while his colleague, Prof Sarah Bansilal said pupils “had less contact time and less time for assessment and feedback”.

Thomas Hlongwane, president of the South African Principals’ Association in Gauteng, expected the pass rate to drop by 3% as a result of disruptions to matrics’ schooling in Grade 11.

Gabrielle Wills from Stellenbosch University said the matric pass rates were “insufficient measures of system performance and do not accurately reflect the extent to which learning has been impacted through pandemic-related disruptions to schooling”.

“More informative matric metrics to consider include what proportion of Grade 10s in 2019 sat for the matric exam in 2021 and, of this group, what percentage passed; or identifying how high-level passes in maths and science have changed.”

Wills said the significantly lower levels of learning in foundational grades due to lost school days and continued rotational systems applied in 2021 was a big concern.

“This has significant implications for matriculation outcomes for many years to come,” she said.

Education specialist Prof Mary Metcalfe was reluctant to predict the pass rate because the focus “distorts the debate about issues in education”.

“It detracts from an analysis of performance across the system, the dropout rate, and underlying inequalities in provincial comparisons.”

Meanwhile, Western Cape education MEC Debbie Schäfer has taken the lead in calling for the scrapping of the one-metre social distancing rule and the full return of all pupils to school.

Her proposal comes after This followed basic education minister Angie Motshekga’s announcement on Tuesday that rotational learning will continue because of the one-metre social distancing requirement.

In a statement issued on Thursday, Schäfer confirmed that pupils at about 88% of primary schools were still attending rotational classes.

“In order to avoid a generational catastrophe, we call on the department and department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs to make the necessary changes to the regulations,” she said. ​ 

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