Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga recently announced that the matric pass rate for the class of 2018 is 78.2%.
This pass rate is a significant improvement over the 2017 pass rate of 75.1%, and the highest since the class of 2013’s 78.3%.
This raises the question as to what makes 2013 and 2018 so special, and the answer is simple – these results preceded general elections in South Africa.
A similar big increase in the matric results happened in 2003, too, which was before the 2004 generation elections.
Education is always a hot topic on the campaign trail, and a high matric pass rate makes it easier for the ruling ANC to claim they are doing a great job.
The Department of Basic Education’s officials may argue that the higher pass rates before election years are purely coincidental. However, it justifies scrutiny.
Matric marks adjusted upwards in 2018
The matric pass rate is a figure which can easily be manipulated through easier exams or mark adjustments.
This year, for example, 17 out of the 67 subjects that formed part of the Department of Basic Education’s matric exams had their marks adjusted upwards.
It is not surprising that the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education, Nomsa Marchesi, raised “serious questions” about the management of the National Senior Certificate exams.
Marchesi highlighted that the size of the mark adjustments are kept secret, with Umalusi refusing to let MPs attend the standardisation meeting.
It is easy to understand why the DA needs to attack the ever-growing matric pass when the party argues the ANC government is failing the country’s youth through poor education.
Matric made easier
Mark adjustments are only one of the tools used by the ANC government to increase the matric pass rate, though.
The most effective way to increase the pass rate is to make it easier to pass, and here the government has been particularly industrious since 1994.
The government lowered the pass mark in some subjects to 30% and made exams easier by removing higher grade subjects.
In its latest intervention, the government made it easier to get a National Senior Certificate Bachelor’s pass by removing the “designated subject list”.
Previously pupils had to obtain an NSC with a minimum of a 50% in four designated subjects for admission to degree studies.
However, on 2 March, the designated subject list was revoked by the department of higher education.
This means that the minimum admission requirements for degree study changed to an achievement of 50% or more in any four subjects.
A matric pass became so easy that education expert Professor Jonathan Jansen said that “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 university and few would attain the degree within the minimum time.”
Preventing learners from failing
Another highly effective tool to increase the matric pass rate is to ensure learners who may not pass the exams do not write them.
Marchesi said figures analysed by the DA show a massive dropout of students from Grade 10 to matric.
Looking at the number of students who started Grade 10 in 2016 – who would become the matric class of 2018 – under 40% of these learners passed matric exams.
Matric results from 2000 to 2018
The graph below shows the matric pass rate from 2000 to 2018, and the close link between higher pass rates and general elections.