South Africa


Matric results gender disparity – where have all the young men gone?

Matric results gender disparity – where have all the young men gone?
Students at Brackenfell High School begin the annual National Senior Certificate Examination or Matric Final Examination on 31 October 2022 in Brackenfell, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Why are our young men more vulnerable to dropping out? Why are they failing more? What is going on in homes and communities which pulls men away from schools? And how do those factors play out in society and employment at large?

Like many South Africans across the country I awaited the matric results with one part interest, one part disdain and one part anxiety: interest as it is a key stable barometer of the health of our schooling system; disdain as this is not the only indicator, but garners the most attention; and anxiety because I have teenage children, nieces and nephews and friends in my life.

This time of year is stressful. The NSC results require an anxious wait at a school or for a sms or trying “check your results” websites which tell you just pass or fail (and so are very unhelpful).

That is followed by the wait for universities to contact young adults. They can expect either “congratulations you have been accepted. Accept in three days to respond…” or “Your application is being considered. You met the minimum requirements, but that does not guarantee acceptance. We will communicate with you in due course”.

So the straight-A kids get three or four offers. They decline two or three of them. This then frees up space for more acceptance letters to go out (but only after another week or so). Those with bachelor passes wait to see which queue is short enough to accommodate them. Those with diploma passes look for opportunities in Tvet colleges, or university diploma courses.

My last week has held various matric results conversations with young South African men. All of them privileged and from fee-paying schools in Gauteng.

19-year-old young man A: got his second choice, and now needs a place to stay

  • “Oh no. I am so mad at myself. I missed two As. I only got four. I can’t get into actuarial science. But I am accepted into UCT for applied maths and stats.”
  • “That’s wonderful. Go for it. You will still do really interesting stuff.”
  • “I did not know that getting into res was so hard. There is no way I can afford those private fees. How can I find a place?”

19-year-old young man B: missed his entrance into a BA

  • “I just missed the 34 points I need for a BA at UWC. One point. One point. That’s just three marks on my 47 for CAT.”
  • “Why don’t you try for a remark or apply for the extended BA programme?”
  • “What’s an extended programme?”
  • “Some universities offer a four-year degree programme for students who just miss the points threshold. You get extra support, and/or take first year over two years.”

21-year-old young man: wants to go back and try university again

  • “I think I want to study again. Can you help me? I dropped out of university in second year. It was Covid. It was horrible. I have worked for two years now. But I think I want to try again. How does that work?”
  • “You have to apply again with your matric and first-year results. But most university applications close in June. You will have to start in 2024 if it’s a public university. Or try distance learning this year (UNW, or Wits Plus).”
  • “Ok so I have time to decide on what I actually want to do. What’s the difference between a BCom PPE (politics, philosophy, economics) and a BA PPE? And what about BA (law)? What Will my BSc credits count? I passed first year.”

18-year-old young man: got a diploma pass, but a matric with 40s for maths and physics

  • “I am disappointed I passed. But only with a diploma pass. I messed up with maths, physics and Afrikaans. I suck at those. I improved from grade 11. That was crazy. We had eight different maths teachers. They all started again with number patterns. I got a tutor this year. My results are better. But not enough.”
  • “You can do a second-chance matric. With maths and physics you should try again. If you don’t plan to go into sciences, you could write maths literacy and pick up something else instead of physics.”
  • “I am waiting to hear from UJ. I applied there for a diploma.”
  • “You are young. You can improve your results. You don’t have to go back into a school uniform. Improve your results to then choose what you really want to study.”

 19-year-old young man: yes, he applied for res… but did he?

  • “I got into UWC, and into what I wanted! Now I am waiting to hear about res.”
  • “Have you checked your emails? (They won’t contact you on Instagram or Twitter).”
  • “Yes. But no res email. Just my acceptance.”
  • “Are you sure you applied for res?”
  • “I ticked a box that said: ‘Will you be applying for res?’ and I said ‘yes’.”
  • “But then did you apply for res?”
  • “What do you mean?”
  • “Saying you will apply for res, is not the same as completing the res application form. You said you would… but you didn’t actually apply.”
  • “Oh no!!! What do I do now?”

18-year-old young man: why have I heard nothing

  • “I am worried. Everyone else is getting news from universities. I have heard nothing.”
  • “Have you checked your email?”
  • “Yes.”
  • “Which email address are you checking?”
  • “Gmail.”
  • “Was that the email you used to apply?”
  • “Yes… um. No. Actually… I used my school email. But we have been cut off from school email now that we have finished.”
  • “Well, the university is probably communicating with you via that school email… I think you should call your school. Or contact the university to give your new details.”

I have conversations, but I also have fun playing with the results. It’s part of my job. This year has been frustrating as I can’t get hold of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) Technical report. I am relying on the director general’s presentation of the technical report. I have been looking at two things: the age of our learners, and their genders.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

How old are the young adults writing matric?

NSC full time enrolment by age (2021 and 2022)

This graph shows that the adults writing matric in 2022 are generally younger than those who wrote in 2021.

I focus on 17-22-year-olds. Why?

Most children enter Grade R at five years old (a few go a year earlier). Thirteen years later they will be 18, and should be in Grade 12. About half of them will have turned 19 during their matric years. The DBE progression policy is that you can only repeat one grade in a phase. So you get four possibilities of repeating a year. So the expected age for matric is 17 to 22-year-olds. Also, the numbers get pretty small for 23 onwards. But, congratulations to those adults who took on the matric challenge.

Why are our matriculants getting younger?

This is because of the new progression policy. You can now only repeat a grade once in a phase. Look at the data on grade-level repetition over time.

Percentage of learners repeating the current grade.

We are now flattening the Grade 10-11 repetition bulge. From around 2010, and continuing to 2018, we had a very high repetition rate at Grade 10, 11 and 12. Learners were being kept back for not meeting grade-level expectations. “And rightly so!” I hear some readers say.

Well, the evidence on repetition is pretty clear: repeated repetition does not improve individual learning outcomes. Repeating is not a punishment for lack of effort. Repeating should allow a child to catch up on missed learning. Repeating again and again just tends to lead to individual frustration and social problems in schools.

Schools in England group children strictly by age, and not by attainment at all. I think if a child has had a major setback, developmental delay, or is not reading enough to learn in grade 4, that repetition in the early grades can be helpful. Repeated repetition in higher grades has far less impact. The progression policy recognises this.

We no longer have as many full-grown adults (22 and older) sitting in school desks in a school uniform, and taking up the place of our 17 and 18-year-olds. Those who fail are progressed. If they fail again they exit the school system and can take up opportunities in Tvet colleges, seek work or participate in a learnership (through a Seta).

Why only men?

I pick out the young men, as this graph has seriously bothered me since the matric results were announced.

Full time enrolment in Grade 12 by age and gender.

Full time enrolment in Grade 12 by age and gender

See those spikes of more women than men in the 17, 18 and 19 age groups?

Look at what we see in the 17 to 22-year-old categories:

We see a similarly skewed female:male ratio when we consider NSC passes by gender (56% female: 44% men).

What’s the problem?

The problem is with the young men, when compared with young women: 1) men are dropping out more before matric; 2) men are repeating a grade more often in school, and so are older when in matric; and 3) more men are failing matric.

Why? We have gender parity by age in our demographic data. We know that there are pressures on women to exit school (pregnancy and childcare roles and caring for a family all impact disproportionally on young women).

We should expect more men than women. Why do we see the opposite? What’s going wrong for young men?

This is a global trend. After centuries of denied access to equal educational opportunities, when women are granted access, they tend to outperform men. This seems to be the case in almost all disciplines, except the “hard sciences”.

And even in the hard sciences, women tend to not take up the educational opportunities offered to them in what are viewed as “traditional male” domains. Those women who take the plunge and enter the hard sciences, match the men’s performance.

What’s the problem behind the problem?

OK, so we know the problem: 1) more South African women are taking up the opportunity to write matric than men are; 2) men are failing more often, and dropping out; and 3) fewer men are passing matric.

But so what? Isn’t this what gender activism intends?

No. As a feminist, I am deeply concerned. I want gender parity. And when one gender is disadvantaged and not reaching its potential, I am interested in why. What are the structural, environmental and cultural factors that are constraining our young men?

Of the young adults in prison, only 180 enrolled for matric. I would like to see the gender breakdown there (but it remains tiny compared with the nearly 100,000 missing men).

What is our education system expecting, and what are schools doing that makes men more vulnerable to dropping out? Why are they failing more? What is going on in homes and communities which pulls men away from schools? And how do those factors play out in society and employment at large?

We should all be concerned. We should all be asking: what is going wrong for our young men?

Note: When the DBE publishes the technical report on 2022 NSC results, I will provide further analysis on other points of interest, such as our education trends in gateway subjects. DM

Nicky Roberts is the director of Kelello Consulting and a Professor in mathematics education. She has a PhD in mathematics education (Wits), a Master’s in International perspectives in mathematics education (Cambridge) and a postdoc from the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan says:

    Problem identified: boys fall out of school at a higher rate and achieve less at school. It is disappointing though that no speculation is offered on possible reasons.

    So here are four (of many more, I am sure) possibilities WHY boys struggle:

    (Gross generalization acknowledged. The phenomenon is most likely influenced by shared general and diverse local factors.)

    * Lack of balanced and competent male mentors and models for boys (i.e. Cape Flats)

    * The constant bombardment on maleness as “privileged” and “toxic” by critical theory activists scattering impressionable young boys into their underground bomb shelters. Self-image and self-value, sense of meaning and purpose in tatters. (Are we beginning to see the long-term negative fallout of dialectic social engineering?)

    * Filling the void of meaning in their lives with gangs, drugs, crime and pornography. What a destructive waste of male energy and time.

    * Girls mature psychologically earlier than boys.

    * Statistics indicate that people marry at a later age, if at all. Marriage was a way society enabled men to be grounded by women in purpose, responsibility and meaning. Now young men meander along while girls are hard at work to achieve as much as possible (good for them!) before they have to attend to the demands of their biological clock. (A few years ago, it was reported how rising crime in Japan is attributed to this phenomenon.)

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Daily Maverick The Gathering 2024 banner

Daily Maverick has secured an esteemed speaker line-up...

to help make sense of Elections 2024.

Trevor Manuel, Prof Thuli Madonsela and Minister Ronald Lamola are among the latest panellists confirmed for Daily Maverick The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four.

Join us, on Thurs 14 March 2024 at CTICC Cape Town or online wherever you are, for an event that will put the election in perspective.

Make your taxes work for you

Donate to Daily Maverick’s non-profit arm, the Scorpio Investigative Unit, by 29 February 2024 and you’ll qualify for a tax break.

We issue Section 18A tax certificates for all donations made to Daily Maverick. These can be presented to SARS for tax relief.

Make your donation today

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

A new community Actionist every week.

Meet the South Africans making a difference. Get Maverick Citizen in your inbox.