The real matric rate and the real site of failure in education

14 January 2018 - 00:02 By NIC SPAULL

Every year the matric results come out and suddenly everyone has an opinion about what's going on in education. "The Free State is the best province", "We should ban the IEB and have one exam", "The pass rate shows our interventions are working".
No. No. No. None of this is true. Firstly, the rising pass rate - from 73% in 2016 to 75% in 2017 - is purely a function of more students being held back and dropping out.
In 2017 there were only 401,435 passes compared to 442,672 in 2016 - that's a 9% decline in one year. So why were there 40,000 fewer matric passes? It's not because the population dropped by 9% (it did go down but only by about 4%).
It's not because more candidates moved to writing their matric part-time (and therefore aren't included in the "official" pass rate); there were only 11,462 additional part-timers in 2017 compared to 2016. And it's definitely not because there are fewer progressed pupils (there were 108,742 in 2016 and 107,430 in 2017, basically the same).
So what is it? Basically, more kids are dropping out or being held back.
It's also no surprise that the only provinces with increasing matric pass rates (Eastern Cape +6%, Limpopo +3% and KwaZulu-Natal +6%) were also the provinces with the largest declines in the numbers writing matric (-18%, -18% and -16% respectively). So the high-level take-home is that the more you "cull" and "gate-keep", the more your matric pass rate increases.So what is the "real" matric pass rate?
A lot of people have been asking this question, including myself, and it turns out it's a little more complicated than one thinks. Occasionally we calculate "throughput pass rates" (matric passes divided by Grade 10 enrolments two years earlier or Grade 2 enrolments 10 years earlier), yielding figures around 39% for the 2017 Grade 10 throughput pass rate. This is the incorrect figure.
The problem is that at least 20% of Grade 10 enrolments are "repeaters", not part of the original cohort. There are also the complications of those writing supplementary exams, getting part-time passes, or independent schools writing National Senior Certificate exams.
The most authoritative research done on this is by one of my colleagues at Stellenbosch University, Dr Martin Gustafsson, and according to his calculations, the "true" matric pass rate is about 55% and the province with the highest achievement is Gauteng. I believe that.
While this is not as bad as the crude and incorrect figure of 39%, it is also not as high as the crude and incorrect figure of 75%. If one adds in youth who get some kind of non-matric qualification (through a technical or vocational college) the figure rises marginally, to about 57%.
So, 43% of youth in South Africa still get no qualification whatsoever. Not matric, not TVET, not university. Nothing. They enter the labour market ill-prepared and inherit lives of chronic poverty and sustained unemployment. Is it any wonder that since 2002 more than 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds in South Africa are "NEET" - not employed or in education or training?

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