Picture: THE TIMES
The Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo were bottom of the table, showing sharp declines. Picture: THE TIMES

THE annual matric results are the most visible and tangible test of the education system, even if they are not the only test.

This year’s disappointing results suggest that SA’s school system is failing the test. Not only is the pass rate down for the second consecutive year, but some of the details are cause for particular concern.

For instance, less than a third of the relatively small number who wrote maths passed with more than 40%.

If the results are to be useful as a guide to education policy, it’s important to look carefully at what explains the disappointing performance — and what that tells us about the failings in the system that need to be attended to.

Three broad sets of factors have been cited to explain the decline in the overall pass rate, to 70.7% this year from 74.1% last year. The first reason given for the decline is the new curriculum. This was the second cohort to write matric based on the new CAPS (curriculum assessment policy statements) system.

The standard — what those in education call the "cognitive demands" — is said to be higher and benchmarked against global ones.

If the lower pass rate is a reflection of higher standards being demanded of pupils, this is no bad thing.

It may, however, take a few more years for the new system to settle down and for teachers to get the measure of whether or not it is working.

In the meantime, there is no need for dropping the standards or tinkering with the curriculum yet again. But policy makers do need to look at improving the quality and efficiency of teaching and learning to ensure that pupils acquire the necessary cognitive skills.

The second reason given for the sharp fall in the pass rate is the "progressed learner" factor. In recent years, the Department of Education has put pressure on the provincial education departments and schools to allow into matric pupils who have failed Grade 11 twice and/or are over-age.

As many as 66,000 such pupils in 2015 helped to swell the ranks of those writing matric to a record high of almost 800,000.

Inevitably, "progressed" pupils are more likely to fail and so their inclusion pushed up the failure rate.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga sees this, however, as a risk that was worth taking to keep pupils in the system who would otherwise drop out.

And the "progressed" pupil cohort did yield a surprising number of passes, including a fair number with university entrance passes. But the department will have to handle this issue carefully to ensure the benefits outweigh the costs to the system.

The third, most disturbing factor in the lower pass rate involves the widening gap in the performance of the provinces. It’s a gap that, to a significant extent, mirrors the urban-rural divide in SA.

The Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo were bottom of the table, showing sharp declines. But those three predominantly rural provinces account for 53% of all those who wrote matric. Without them, the overall pass rate would have been 74.1%, much closer to that of last year.

Some deep thinking is needed urgently within the provinces and the national education department on why some of the provinces are failing so badly at educating young people. Those in charge need to set out what they are going to do to tackle this — and do so soon.

As much as the results reveal deep structural failings in the education system, they also tell some good news about progress being made. It’s worth noting that 10 times as many children passed matric in 2015 than in 1970 and that is surely a good story.

So too is the progress made by many poor schools in improving their grades — and in producing high achievers despite the odds.

Congratulations to them.