The strange connection between elections and matric results


By Jan Vermeulen

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced last week that South Africa’s matric pass rate for the class of 2023 is 82.9% – a historic high for the public school system since at least 1985.

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

The same happened in 2003, 2013 and 2018.

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

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

It then dropped 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 recurring pattern in South Africa’s matric pass rate?

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

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

Department of Basic Education officials may argue that the higher pass rates before election years are purely coincidental. However, this warrants an investigation.

Prevent learners from failing

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

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

This fact is evident from the confusing figures posted by the Department of Basic Education (DBO) and Umalusi about the students who wrote matric in 2023.

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

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

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

Yet none of these figures were used to calculate the actual matric pass rate. For this, the DBO used the number of full-time students who wrote the exam, which he said was 691,690.

This is a 206,085 difference between the number of registered matrics and the number used to calculate the pass rate.

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

Matric made easier

However, convincing matrics not to write the exam rather than fail is only one of the tools used to increase the matric pass rate.

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

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

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

A Diploma layer, which promises provisional acceptance to a University of Technology, requires 40% in four subjects, and 30% in the rest – an average of 35.7%.

To pass matric without any entry to a higher education institution, students must have 40% in their home language, and 40% in at least two other subjects.

You can 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 admission.

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

The failure of a home language also led to the repetition of the year.

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

This allowed school pupils to take easier subjects, avoid maths and physical science and still qualify for university admission.

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

A matric pass has become so easy that educational 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 college and few will graduate in the minimum amount of 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 yet another controversy over the upward adjustment of marks.

“Contrary to popular belief, the matric pass rate on its own is not a good measure of academic performance in the school system, nor was the pass rate ever designed for this,” it says.

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

Despite this statement, ministers and other government officials still celebrate a rising pass rate as a measure of 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 try matric should have it, not everyone can or should succeed.

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

All children do not need – 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 relationship between higher pass rates and general elections.

  • Jan Vermeulen is an editor at MyBroadband.

This article was published courtesy of MyBroadband.