A SUPERFICIALLY impressive 73.9% of matric candidates passed last year’s exams — 3.7 percentage points more than in 2011, the Department of Basic Education exultantly announced recently.

In effect, however, the true pass rate was an alarmingly poor 41%. That’s because, in 2000, 923,463 pupils started grade 1, yet a mere 511,152 wrote last year’s matric exam, of which 74% passed. This means that, in reality, we had a pass rate of 41% for the class of 2012 that enrolled in grade 1 13 years ago.

This raises the question: What happened to the rest? Consider:

• How do we have so huge a disparity between Gauteng’s pass rate of 83.9% and the Eastern Cape’s 61.6%?

• In 2011, 496,090 pupils wrote matric compared with 511,152 last year — some growth, but no more than marginal.

It is strongly suspected that there is a national culture for schools to encourage weaker students not to write exams. This protects the pass rate but at a huge cost, worsening South Africa’s adult learning centre crisis, which is troubled by concern about low performance in critical subjects.

The desperate maths situation is a case in point. While the pass rate improved from 2011’s 46.3% to last year’s 54%, much of the gain reflects the increasing number of students taking the much easier maths literacy option. If we continue in this vein, the future is uninviting, as economic growth is predicated on a nation’s scientific know-how.

Of great concern is that the minimum pass rate for mathematics and science is not the 50% it should be. Allowing candidates to pass with 30% is not preparing young people for the workplace.

Chief among the concerns is that the quality of education is not good enough to support tertiary enrolment.

As many as 3-million young people aged 18-24 are unable to access further education — a heartbreaking loss of human potential and a total mismatch with what further education and training institutions offer and what the economy needs. This is one of the reasons the Department of Higher Education and Training has released the green paper on post-school education and training. It is predicated on the premise that "education and training opportunities are too limited to meet the needs of the economy and the expectations of young people". The paper recognises the gap in the education of many adults who are already employed and those who left school early.

There are many adults without any schooling and who remain illiterate in English and mathematics. As a result, there is a growing need for adult education programmes to help fill the gaps in the education of employed adults. They also equip adults who did not finish school with the literacy and numeracy needed for proper employment.

It is possible that the green paper has taken a page out of the Gauteng education department’s book that spells out the steps it has taken to address the problem. Gauteng has implemented an accelerated adult learning programme. It appreciates that if Gauteng is to meet the government’s job-creation targets, rapid and effective remedial action is needed. Gauteng’s initiative should serve as a model for the other eight provinces.

Languages and maths are key to any education system and are fundamental to further learning. Without them, South Africa will not generate the skills and jobs it so desperately needs.

What about those several thousands of unemployed graduates — young people who have qualified in courses of no value to the economy? One answer is to improve the quality of vocational guidance at our schools. A few months ago, the Department of Higher Education and Training launched a ground-breaking research project to develop a "labour market intelligence" system that will enable the government and the private sector to make better decisions in matching skills demand to supply. This will empower students and work-seekers to make better-informed education and skills decisions, which will make them more attractive to employers and the economy in general. This is a step in the right direction for the improvement of the unemployment statistics. The minister has emphasised that the proposed solution is co-ordinated with school curriculums.

The government must focus on the dropout rate, not the pass rate — if the dropout rate decreases, it means South Africa is doing something right to keep our children in school for longer.

• Carroll is CEO of Media Works, which specialises in adult basic education and training.