A TOTAL of 73.9% of South Africa’s matric pupils passed their state-set National Senior Certificate examinations last year, up from 70.2% in 2011, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said on Wednesday.

Overall, 511,152 full-time pupils and 81,552 part-time pupils wrote the exams.

Among the country’s provinces, Gauteng recorded the highest pass rate, at 83.9%, compared with 81.15% the year before, followed by the Western Cape at 82.8% — slightly down from 82.9% in the previous year.

The Eastern Cape, where the national Department of Basic Education had intervened in the provincial department, recorded the lowest pass rate at 61.6%, which was an improvement on the rate of 58.1% its pupils had achieved in 2011.

The pass rate in Limpopo, where the delivery of textbooks to many schools was delayed for seven months last year, was 66.9%, compared with 63.9% before.

The textbook saga was unfortunate, Ms Motshekga said. “It should not have happened.” She added, however, that the delayed textbooks had been for pupils in Grades 1 to 3 and Grade 10, while matriculants had not been affected.

In Mpumalanga, 70% of pupils passed, from 64.8% in 2011, in KwaZulu-Natal 73.1% (from 68.1%), in the Northern Cape 74.6% (from 68.8%), in the Free State 81.1% (from 75.7%) and in the North West 79.5% (from 77.8%).

Of those who passed, 26.6% achieved university exemption, a 2.3 percentage point rise from the year before.

Economist and former science educator Chris Hart said the 2012 pass rate was not a strong indication that the matriculants were adequately prepared for higher education and the world of work.

“The pass rate is, to my mind, not a strong indication of whether the people are prepared to enter the work market,” he said. “There is a low passing threshold and a low quality of passing. The question is how many actually can enter university and will be prepared for the world of work.”

Mr Hart also said he was still concerned about the 2012 mathematics and science exam results. The national maths pass rate in 2012 was 54%, up from 46.3% the previous year, and that for physical science was 61.3%, up from 53.4%.

“Maths and science (grades) are still very low,” he said. “The preparedness of people to enter the workplace is still in question, while the fact that it is improving is encouraging. I would suggest that we not lose sight of the need to ensure improvement is not merely a result of a lower passing threshold.”

Education system ‘stabilising’

At a technical briefing ahead of the release of the results on Wednesday, Department of Basic Education director-general Bobby Soobrayan said the results showed that the department’s interventions were stabilising the basic education system, with teachers having adjusted to the new curriculum and exam policies and processes streamlined.

He said quality assurance body Umalusi had accepted the raw marks in 41 subjects, from a a total of 58 subjects offered last year. Twelve subjects had their marks adjusted downwards, and five upwards.

However, he added that the “recurring theme” of public scrutiny of the value of the matric qualification was “misleading”. Due to the complexity of answering the exam papers, achieving 80% in a subject did not, for example, mean a 20% lack of content knowledge, he said.

Of South Africa’s 81 education districts, only three achieved an average pass rate below 50%, compared with five in 2011. As with last year, all these districts were in the embattled Eastern Cape, Mr Soobrayan said.

Education lobby group Equal Education said in a statement on Wednesday it was important to note that the number of pupils writing the matric exam had dropped significantly since 2001.

“The 2012 matric class attending public school in 2001 began as a group of 1,130,659 … By 2010, when the group was in grade 10, it had been reduced to 1,006,549 … By the time the group reached matric, there were only 512,133 learners remaining. This means only 45.2% of the learners who began Grade 1 in 2001 made it to the start of matric in 2012,” it said.

Economist Mike Schussler said a matric qualification remained important in the job market, as those without it were more likely to remain unemployed than high school and university graduates.

“People in matric have a better chance of job opportunities,” he said. “This has been the case for the past 15-20 years. If you have less than a matric, then your chances of being unemployed are as high as 36%. Those who have matric have a 25% chance of unemployment, 7% for degree holders and 12% for those holding a trade,” he said.

Mr Schussler also said it was important to note that a high number of pupils who started basic schooling about 11 years ago did not write the matric exam last year.

“South Africa has one of the lowest completion rates of the emerging markets,” he said. “While some might not feel it is fair to compare South Africa with these, our school completion rates are closer to India’s. I suspect Brazil, Russia and China have higher completion rates than our pass rate.”

With Sapa