South Africans are poring over the latest set of matric results which show how the country's school leavers performed in their final exams after 12 years of formal schooling. Nearly 718,000 people wrote the exams and 72.5 percent of them passed – a small increase on last year.
The results always generate a great deal of debate – and often anger. The Conversation Africa's education editor Natasha Joseph asked Associate Professor Elizabeth Walton to explain the results and why it's crucial to remember the young people behind the numbers.
There's a huge focus on matric results every year, particularly on the national pass rate. Is this a useful obsession?
I am not convinced that this annual obsession with matric results is productive. The national pass rate is a very blunt instrument with which to dissect South Africa's very complex educational problems. The national pass rate obscures important differences in provincial achievements, the urban/rural divide and the unequal outcomes for learners in poorer schools.
It also does not tell us much about the quality of the passes, nor about the subjects taken. The national pass rate also reflects only the learners who sat the exam. It does not take into account the numbers of early school leavers who did not make it to matric.
This year the announcement by Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, showed 828,020 candidates registered for the examinations. But only 717,971 – full time and part time – actually wrote the exams. This means that more than 100,000 learners made it to grade 12, but fell before the final hurdle.
Is a final set of exams at the end of 12 years of schooling the best way for South Africa to judge pupils' readiness for entering the world of work or continuing on to tertiary education? What other options exist?
Many education systems around the world combine a school-based assessment component with some external standardised assessment as a school leaving qualification. But it seems to me that we should not be looking at a major change at this stage. The system needs to settle and mature. I do think, though, it would be good to revisit South African academic Professor Stephanie Allais' proposal that the current pass or fail system be scrapped.
She suggests that learners should instead be allowed to complete grade 12 with a basket of subjects and results which could then be presented to an employer or institution of higher learning. This would shift the focus from the national pass rate to the enrolment and results of individual subjects. It might also mean that schools could be less concerned with an overall school pass rate and rather focus on subject-level improvement over time.
It is possible to improve a school's pass rate without actually improving teaching and learning; for example by finding ways to exclude learners who may compromise a school's results, or by not offering subjects that are perceived to be difficult, like maths and physical science.
I also think we need to be realistic in terms of what we expect a matric qualification to signal. The minister of basic education has noted that it is an exit qualification and not primarily a tool for evaluating the progress of the system.
For those who are not looking to pursue further education, a matric certificate is expected to provide proof of preparation for the world of work. Others expect it provide evidence of the foundations of academic literacy and subject competence that will enable success in higher learning. These expectations are not always compatible with what South Africans regard as "basic education".
To address this "one-size-fits-all" matric, the Department of Basic Education has proposed a three stream education system with an Academic Stream, a Technical Vocational Stream and a Technical Occupational Stream. This is expected to address the problem of early school leaving and prepare learners for the world of work.
Maths and science results often get the most attention. They are obviously important "canaries in the coal mine" that point to the system's overall health. But are there subjects that deserve more attention and whose results can paint a picture of what's going wrong – or right?
I think it is vital that maths and science retain our attention, for several reasons. These are gateway subjects for the science, technology, engineering and maths occupations South Africa urgently needs to develop. They're also subjects that bear huge scars of apartheid's legacy.
They also build sequentially: poor foundations are not easily addressed by late interventions. Having said that I do think that languages, particularly indigenous African languages, also need our focus to secure their growth and development. The introduction of South African Sign Language as a home language examined at matric level is a definite success story.
What if you're a young person who's failed matric? What's your best option?
This is an important question, because any analysis of the matric results must hold in tension the system and the individual. We cannot ignore the fact that there are real young people with hopes and dreams behind all the numbers. Failure is devastating – particularly in the face of a trend that sees South Africans celebrating individual "top achievers" in newspapers and at prestigious events.
I think we should be wary of this. It assumes that success at school is purely the result of individual effort and ability. Those who don't succeed are presumed to be lazy and disinterested in education. These celebrations convey the message that everyone is equally positioned to succeed in a meritocratic process.
Some learners will be upset because they expected to do well; this sometimes happens when the demands of school-based assessment have not been as rigorous as the National Senior Certificate exams set by the Department of Basic Education.