Research and Policy Brief: Fifty-year review of matric results - 10th September 2010

Sep 10, 2010
Much has been said about the quality of schooling in South Africa. One debate that has continued to make the headlines is whether the school system of today is any better than that under apartheid. A number of commentators have charged that the public education system of today is no better than that of Bantu education. Others have responded that such a comparison is ridiculous. Some have pointed out that this debate even taking place points to a deep malaise in our public school system.

How good is the public school system today and specifically is it any better for black children today than it was 20 or even 50 years ago?

To answer the question the Institute has gone back to the 1950s and tracked the performance of black African matric pupils from 1955 to 2008/09. The review tracks the number of black Africans who wrote matric, the number who passed overall, and the number who got a university entrance pass. It is a story that highlights the worst evils of the apartheid system.

In 1955 only 598 black Africans sat for their matric exams. Of these 90 or 15% achieved a university entrance pass. Only 259 or 43.5% achieved a pass. These numbers increased relatively rapidly through the early 1960s - although only because they were growing off such a low base. By 1965 some 1 339 black Africans sat for their matric exams – almost three times the number of a decade earlier. Of the 1965 class 323 or 24.1% achieved a university entrance pass. The number who passed in that year was 827 or 61% of the class.

The numbers again almost doubled to 1970 when 2 846 black Africans wrote their matric exams. Of this group 1 103 or 35.6% got a university entrance pass while 1 865 or 65.2% passed. The 1960s had therefore seen significant increases in both the number of black Africans writing their matric exams and in the proportions of those pupils obtaining passes and university entrance passes.

Growth in the numbers really began to accelerate through the 1970s. By 1975 some 8 445 black African pupils were writing their matric exams. Of these 3 520 or 41.7% obtained a university entrance pass while 5 400 or 63.9% passed overall.
In 1980 some 29 973 black African pupils wrote matric. However, in this year something peculiar began to happen as the university pass rate fell by almost half to 15.7%. The overall pass rate also fell to 53.2%. As a result only 4 714 of these pupils achieved a university entrance pass in 1980 - a number showing only a marginal improvement from that of 3 520 in 1975.

These low pass rates have generally been continued all the way up to the present.

By 1985 while 82 815 black Africans were writing their matric exams only 9 938 or 12% achieved a university entrance pass. Of that year’s class 38 923 or 47% achieved an overall pass. By 1990 the number of black African pupils writing matric had rocketed to 255 669. However, disappointingly, only 23 010 or 9% obtained a university entrance pass – the lowest pass rate on record. The number obtaining an overall matric pass was 109 938 or 43% - marginally lower than the 43.5% of 1955. The university entrance pass rate eventually bottomed out at 8% in 1993. In that year the overall pass rate also touched a record low of 37%.

The story of matric performance through the late 1990s and 2000s is relatively well known. Black African pupil numbers continued to rise, breaking though the 400 000 barrier in 1994, and reaching 466 474 in 2009 - an increase of over 78 000% since 1955. The university entrance pass rate for 2008 was however 13.4% which was significantly lower than that of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The overall pass rate bucked this trend and at 54.5% in 2009 was ten percentage points higher than that of 1955 but lower than the peak pass years of the 1960s and early 1970s.

All this data tells us a number of things.

The first is that access to education for black Africans has improved appreciably from the appallingly low levels of the 1950s. Today approximately 500 000 black Africans get the chance to write matric. However we put this number at about 60% of the age cohort that should be writing matric. This means that much still needs to be done to improve access to education.

The second is that, at the level of a university entrance pass, the quality of the school system appears to have declined. The university entrance pass rate has fallen by more than half from the levels maintained in the 1960s and 1970s. The turmoil of the 1980s, and instability that it caused in schools, may carry much of the blame for this as it is in that year that we see the steepest fall in this pass rate. However if this speculation is correct it also means that we have never managed to re-stabilise our school system.

The third is that at the most basic level of education roughly the same proportion of children pass today as at any other time over the last 50 years. This suggests that, on a basic level, the quality of education provided in South Africa’s schools may not have shifted much over the last 50 years. What should also be of concern is that the overall pass rate remained relatively static even as the university pass rate fell. This may suggest a dumbing down of the former.

The fourth point is that demands on school leavers in terms of skills may be far greater today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Information technology and a change in South Africa’s industrial base mean that employers are likely to demand a greater level of skill from their employees. Combined with South Africa’s post 1994 labour market regime this may have had the consequence of further limiting employment opportunities for matriculants.

The fifth is that the average size of the matric class today is almost three times greater than the average tertiary education intake. This suggests that that matriculants are not well enough prepared for matric and/or do not have the financial resources for tertiary study. On these last two points there is probably near universal agreement.

So are school children today better off than their parents and grand-parents 30 and even 50 years ago? The answer depends on what you are measuring. If you are measuring the opportunity to attend school the answer is yes. If you are assessing the child’s chance of receiving an education then the answer is more complicated and might even be no.
The argument about whether Bantu education is better than that of today is therefore a circular and pointless debate. However, reviewing the data of the last fifty five years is anything but pointless. It reveals starkly the mammoth challenge inherited by the ANC in 1994. It also shows us just how little progress we have in fact made in meeting that challenge and how far we still have to go.

- Frans Cronje

The South African Institute of Race Relations will publish the complete 55 year review of matric results in its South Africa Survey 2009/10, which is due to be released in later in the year.

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