Compiled by Katie Florian

SAEP Impact Centre

Getting Back to Basics

The dust has begun to settle after all the excitement surrounding the 2014 matric results, which were released Monday the 6th of January, and harsh realities are sinking in for many students in South Africa.

Even with matric passes in hand, students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, face extreme difficulties with employment and access to higher education.

Desperate for somewhere to cast the blame, we turn to the schools and demand to know why our students cannot succeed, why the quality of education is so low, and why many of our young people will be unable to enrol in educational institutions or find employment.

There is no doubt that a systemic problem is prevalent in our education system, but in order to fully understand the significance of matric pass rates in the broader educational and cultural landscape of South Africa, we must interrogate the intention of matric and the complex relationship between South Africa’s education system and the economy.

The Reality of the Matric Pass

Public perception in South Africa is that matric is a means by which to lift oneself out of poverty. Passes mean employment, tertiary education access, and a chance to succeed. However, the reality is often startlingly different.

The 2014 Annual National Assessment (ANA) results indicate that only 3% of Grade 9 learners scored 50% or higher in math. Unsurprisingly, students are often unable to acquire the foundationalacademic and personal skills they need to pass matric three years later and gain successful access to employment and further education.

This means that the thousands of young people entering educational institutions and the labour market are underprepared, which calls into question the quality of the matric pass. Employers lose faith in the skills of those applicants whose only qualification is matric and therefore increase the requirements for employment. In order for the public to gain confidence in the quality of passes, we must improve the quality of education and ensure that the students who obtain passes get what they need from the twelve years they have spent studying.

The system currently attempts to remediate students’ dismal foundational skills by adding layers of education. Technical and Vocational Education Training colleges accept Grade 12 learners who have failed to gain access to universities or technical universities into their Grade 10-level courses. Students then spend an additional three years repeating the same-level coursework. What students should accomplish in three years takes six.
The CAPS curriculum is rigorous and leaves no room for remediation of foundational skills, and thus, when students begin to struggle, they experience difficulties catching up. Prevention is better than treatment, and rather than wait until learners have completed their schooling to provide remediation, we should intervene as soon as we notice a delay.

Education and the Economy

The matric fail rate is not the sole reason for unemployment. While the insufficient quality of South Africa’s education system prolongs education, lengthening one’s time spent in academia is also a natural consequence of a lack of employment. If there are no jobs, it is logical to delay one’s entrance into the economy. And lately it seems jobs are scarce compared to the sheer numbers entering the workforce.

The DG Murray Trust (DGMT), a private foundation that supports initiatives to positively affect the lives of people in South Africa, published a literature review in 2011 that discusses the post-school environment affecting many South African youth. They argue that prior work experience significantly alters whether or not an individual can successfully gain employment. An estimated 826 000 young people arrive on the labour market each year, and those that “have never held a job before are 35% more likely to be unemployed than those with prior work experience.” Even more startling is the racial disparity of work experience – only 37% of young black men and 20% of young black women have work experience compared to 95% of young white men, 91% of young coloured men, and 86% of white and coloured women.
We cannot assume that educating young people for specific degrees or diplomas will grant them immediate access into the workforce. They may have the skills required of them, but the labour market does not have the capacity to support the sheer numbers looking for jobs.
Instead of developing young people who fit into designated moulds and occupations, we need to hone the skills of individuals who have the ability to create their own opportunities and the talent to generate jobs for themselves and those in their communities. We must build our ability to create more opportunities by encouraging those coming through the South African school system to explore the various avenues of success that exist, and we must support them.
University is not the optimal route for all students – irrespective of socio-economic standing – and Bachelors passes are not the only measure of success. We must stop looking to the matric pass rate as a measure of the health of the school system and instead interrogate the meaning of it. We must put in the effort and the resources earlier in learners’ academic careers to better the quality of education that students receive so that when they leave Grade 12, they have a certificate that means something and the skills to achieve actual success.


Ultimately, focussing on the matric pass rate is distracting, – it takes attention away from the earlier years of education when learning difficulties are born – and overemphasizing the importance of Bachelor pass rates ignores the potential value of other avenues of education, employment, and success. Matric pass rates are an integral part of our school system, but we must consider their purpose within the broader context of the nation and challenge assumptions that low employment rates are solely the fault of our education system.  They are an important ritual; they bring each of us, as South Africans, together for a day of celebration, but they should be considered a small part of a much larger picture.