Message from NSTF Executive Director

Matric results – certain misconceptions?

Here we are in a new (Gregorian calendar) year, already one month old, many of us with renewed hope and expectations. I hope this is true for all our readers, and we wish you all a successful and fulfilling year.

Looking beyond the matric results: As always we emerged from the festive season with news of the matric results. Much was made of the matric pass rate as usual. For some it is too high, for others too low. Some people even want a 100% pass rate nationally. A 100% pass rate would be nonsensical – some children must be ‘allowed’ to fail matric. Even in an education system that works well, some learners will fail and that should be okay.

In fact, the matric passes should conform to a normal distribution curve – like the results of any other objectively designed test. There seems to be a perception that a matric pass is something that everyone should achieve, like a human right. Although basic education is a human right, a matric pass cannot be guaranteed in any education system, and should not be handed out freely.

The obsession with the pass rate has detracted attention from the issues that matter more, namely:

*How ready are matrics for a Bachelor’s degree when they obtain a Bachelor’s endorsement? (The
universities have the ultimate say over admission requirements.)

*How ready are matrics to become employees immediately after matric?

*How ready are matrics to start businesses of their own?

*How many and in what proportion have passed mathematics and physical science, respectively? How
does this compare to previous years?

*How many have the ‘matric equivalent’ of NQF4? If the National Qualifications Framework is taken
seriously as a hierarchy of qualifications comparable to the academic route, this ought to be announced
at the same time as the matric results.

As time moves on and other news takes over the public’s attention (particularly this year), these issues fade until next January when people are again annoyed at the pass rate but fail to unpack its implications properly.

 Why IEB and state exam systems should not be merged: It was mooted this year that the Independent Examination Board (IEB) should be merged with the state’s system. The IEB exams for the National Senior Certificate (NSC, also known as matric) are considered by many, including some overseas universities, as a more challenging set of tests and therefore lead to a better qualification than the non-IEB NSC. Both however, are formalised with the same certificate from the state.

It is strange reasoning to argue that the IEB and state systems should somehow be merged because of the massive inequality in the two parallel systems. Firstly, the IEB schools are a tiny proportion of the education system – The public schools are 93% of the system, independent schools only 4%[1].

Secondly, it is not the particular exam board that creates the discrepancies between matric pass rates and numbers of distinctions – it is the unequal provision of resources at the different schools, including especially, good teachers.

IEB schools are located in privileged (formerly white) residential areas, and there are very few of them compared to the schools for which the state bears sole responsibility. They are usually private schools and particularly well resourced. Their classes are smaller, they have certain teachers appointed and funded through high school fees by the School Governing Bodies (SGBs), pay their teachers better salaries (again by raising funds from better resourced parents), ensure that the schools have good facilities like computers, libraries, and laboratories.

The shocking inequality in the performance of IEB and non-IEB schools is part and parcel of our society’s socio-economic inequality. It is not something you can fix by ‘legislating it away’, and hoping to escape the decades of hard work required to create a functional education system for the country.

Celebrating all top achievers in matric science and maths when matric results are released: The ‘top performers in the country’ are celebrated by the Minister and Deputy Minister of Basic Education early in the year, when the pass rate is revealed and release of the matric results announced. This is a moving and exciting event for the learners, schools and parents, as well as the public watching it online or on television. Bursaries and other prizes are awarded to the selected top achievers. Achievers in the various quintiles are honoured, as well as the best learners with special education needs.

The awards also include the so-called ‘top 3 performers’ in the country, in mathematics, and likewise the ‘top 3 performers’ in physical science, and then especially honouring the ‘top (one) performer’ in each. It is these latter awards for maths and science achievement that I want to challenge.

Although it is wonderful that some top performers are indeed celebrated by the Ministry, and receive prizes, there are more than one ‘top-performer’ in these subjects – and we at the NSTF find this evidence every year during the selection of students for our ‘Brilliants’ programme.

The NSTF Brilliants is a programme that identifies the top performers across the country in matric maths and science, from public schools. A boy and girl are chosen from every province, based on both their matric marks for (only) these two subjects, and their choice of studies. They have to be enrolled at a South African university or university of technology, in natural sciences, engineering, maths, or medicine. We obtain the lists of the top 100 learners in maths and science from each province. As we have been doing this for many years, we have an ‘insider’ perspective on these results.  The Brilliants are sponsored by the Carl & Emily Fuchs Foundation.

Every year, the top 100 in every province include many learners who scored above 90% in maths, above 90% in physical science, a substantial number of them score above 90% in both, and a number of them (always more than one) get 100% in maths, or science, or both. This is the case in all provinces every year. It is therefore impossible to designate any ONE learner as the ‘top performer’ in maths or science in the country.

For example, during the past year, our shortlist for selection included the following figures: (Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list of the top performing matriculants – these were selected on the basis of their study choices):

*There were 25 learners across the country who had 90% and more for Physical Science on our shortlist

*There were 20 of these learners who also had 90% or more for Mathematics

*There were 22 who had an average of these two subjects of 90% or more

*5 of the learners had 100% in BOTH Maths and Physical Science

These were all learners at public schools, from a variety of backgrounds and areas where they are situated. Not only do these annual figures debunk the myth of one overall top achiever, they also demonstrate that talent in maths and science is to be found in all areas of the country, in all types of communities, across races and economic groups.

This year, according to the NSTF shortlist:

*12 of the group of 25 were African

*12 of the group of 25 were women

Finally, we want to assert that all top achievers in maths and science deserve to be celebrated. Just because two learners were identified first as being top achievers, does not make them the top achievers in maths and science of the year.

At the same time, the country still has too few learners who take these subjects, and too few pass them. So please, next year – do not disregard this remarkable group of learners, who hail from all parts of South Africa, and who are high flyers when it comes to maths and science.

[1] Source: National Treasury, PROVINCIAL BUDGETS AND EXPENDITURE REVIEW: 2010/11 – 2016/17,, p 35, Graph showing Percentage distribution of learners in the education system, 2013, from School Realities 2013, Department of Basic Education