Matric results 2020: Western Cape Education Department can and should be doing better


Cameron Dugmore is the Leader of the Opposition in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament.

Underlying factors contributing to the decline in performance need to be faced up to and addressed by the premier, MEC and the Western Cape Education Department.

I found the article by Nicky Roberts in Daily Maverick on 23 February (“The metrics of matric: How the class of 2020 actually fared, province by province”) very informative. She uses six metrics with which to “track progress… at the end point of the schooling system over time”. 

In addition to her comments on each of the six metrics per province, she then calculates a poverty factor for each province. In her scoring, using her six metrics and the poverty factor, Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KZN are ranked first, second and third respectively. 

The Western Cape (WC) is ranked sixth, having been first scored by her at number two, prior to the application of the poverty weighting. 

It is very easy to slip into the comparison/competition narrative when comparing provincial matric results. Roberts’ article focuses us on a deeper and contextual analysis of the situation pertaining in each province. That is to be welcomed. 

When we look at the Western Cape, it is essential that we drill down even further and try to identify areas that need real attention.

The ANC is the official opposition in the Western Cape Legislature and our role is not only to be an effective and critical opposition, but also to point out the challenges as we see them and make proposals. This is what our ANC shadow MEC for Education, Khalid Sayed, has been doing.   

For historical context we should look at the Pass Rate (PR) across South Africa. Others have made it clear that the PR has limited value as a metric, but it is the one that the public are most familiar with. Clearly, the WC was competitive in this regard up to 2016 but since then the lead roles have been left mainly to the Free State and Gauteng. In 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2015 the WC was the top-scoring province, coming second in 2010 and 2016. Going further back, our province held the number one position in terms of the PR each year from 2004 to 2007. 

Source: DBE examination reports

The trend in the Western Cape over the last few years has been for MEC Debbie Schäfer to focus on issues of underfunding and migration of learners from other provinces as being factors that have a negative effect on learning. City Press headlined an article on 19 January 2020, “Western Cape blames influx from ‘weaker’ provinces for declining matric results”. Media statements emphasise the good Maths and Science pass rates, and the Bachelor’s degree pass rates. Most strongly of all she, and the Democratic Alliance (DA), emphasise the retention rate in the province, ie, keeping learners in school until they matriculate. The last point has been so emphasised that we could start to think that this is why the pass rate has declined of late!

The annual reports of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) show that they have been tracking retention from grades 10-12 since 2009.

In the graph below it can be seen that the retention can’t account for the decline in the PR since 2016. Retention is obviously a desirable characteristic, but it’s something all provinces are showing improvement on, while the WC remains almost static.

Source: DBE examination reports and WCED annual reports

Thus, the issues placed on the agenda by the MEC are funding, crowded schools, good Maths and Science, focus on quality via good retention and good Bachelor’s degree passes.

In this article I want to focus on some of the issues which the MEC and DA do not talk about.

The large numbers of schools with low pass rates.

The increase, since a low of 19 in 2016 to the current 38, in the number of schools with a PR of under 60% plus a bulge of schools with pass rates between 60% and 70% raises serious questions about support being given to ex-DET (Department of Education and Training) schools and ex-HOR (House of Representatives) schools. These are the majority of schools in our province that cater for learners in the historically African and coloured communities. 

In 2020, 38.4% of schools in the Western Cape had pass rates of below 70% compared with 16.3% in the Free State and 21.7% in Gauteng. Notably, the 2020 figures for the number of schools with a PR of under 80% are, in fact, slightly better than in 2019.

Although the WCED has the top maths pass rate in SA, notably only two provinces have a smaller proportion of Grade 12s taking and passing Maths vs taking Maths Literacy.

This very low number even offering Maths in a province so well positioned to excel has to be the subject of further investigation and intervention.

Because of the low enrolment, there are only very small WC numbers, relative to the population, who pass Maths, even at the 30% pass level. Less than 20% of the total WC 2020 cohort of Grade 12s pass. Only North West and Northern Cape have a smaller proportion of their learners taking and passing Maths. 

Clearly, if the intake of learners into Maths is curtailed, the pass rate will be high. 

Note that for this calculation and the Physical Science one below, the denominator used was the total number of candidates writing the National Senior Certificate (NSC).

The Western Cape has the lowest proportion of its learners taking Physical Science in the country.

This is a matter of grave concern. The province is recorded as the top achiever in Physical Science, with a PR of 76.2%. How can MEC Schäfer boast about this when our province has the lowest percentage of learners taking Physical Science? Clearly, the vast majority of those passing are from former Model C, historically white schools.  However, the province has the lowest proportion of its learners writing Physical Science. And the numbers taking Physical Science in the Western Cape have dropped just in the last few years , from 10,387 in 2018 to 9,982 in 2019 and 9,463 in 2020.

Source: DBE 2020 school subject report table 4.2; total enrolment from DBE examinations report

Again, as above, once the intake to a subject is limited then the likelihood of a high PR increases. 

We need to ask: are individual schools limiting access to the subject? Is it a matter of funding? Qualified teachers? Are schools no longer offering the subject? What is the province doing to cultivate options and opportunities? Sober and focused attention needs to be paid to the Maths and Science phenomenon in this province.

Critically, the Western Cape’s no-fee schools underperform compared with those in other provinces. 

Although the WC has the second highest rate of Bachelor’s degree passes, its no-fee schools’ performance lags behind its fee-paying schools for Bachelor’s degree passes by 24.9%. 

Source: DBE technical report slide 70

Remember that KZN had 135,225 candidates write the NSC in 2020 and the WC 51,633. That’s 1,762 schools to 447. The table below compares pass rates and the one above bachelor passes.

Source: DBE technical report slide 73

Schools are divided into five poverty categories at a national level to assist with equitable distribution of support/opportunity.  The achievement of the Free State is all the more remarkable given that its quintile 1-3 schools (highest rate of poverty) constitute 63.8% of its total number of schools. In Gauteng this figure is 46.7%, in the Western Cape it is 40.3% and in KZN it is 65.5% (2017 DBE figures).

Given that support is provided to a school rather than directly to children, how is it that the Western Cape’s stewardship of this relatively smaller number of schools is so obviously inferior to what is offered in other provinces with far bigger challenges? 

The Western Cape has such a favourable landscape: why does its educational performance not add up?

The Western Cape has advantages that other provinces do not have: 

Mother-tongue as basis for teaching, learning and assessment

The candidates can learn and be assessed through their mother tongue, ie, English or Afrikaans, which are currently the only two languages of assessment. Seventy percent of the province has either English or Afrikaans as their mother tongue. Nearest to this is Gauteng with these two languages spoken by 25% of its population. 

Good community education levels 

In general, the teachers in the WC have higher qualifications than those in other provinces. 

Post-tertiary education in the WC places it second only to Gauteng, with 13% of adults in this category in the WC to 16% in Gauteng.

The percentages of adults with zero education are lowest in Free State (5%), Gauteng (3.6%) and the lowest of all is the WC at 2.2%

  1. WC per capita income as well GDP per capita are second only to those of Gauteng. Free State is fifth ranked in the country on this metric.
  2. WC is the top-scoring in the country in international testing of younger cohorts as per the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). So why does the early talent seem to wither as they progress?
  3. The “in migration” curse spoken of by the MEC has not dramatically affected growth in the number of matrics writing since 2016.  

Despite the position taken most commonly in public discourse about the problems associated with the massive influx of learners from other provinces, this has clearly not had an impact on WC numbers writing the NSC. 

Source: DBE examinations report

If they were joining schools in any numbers in the FET band in these years then it was to replace WC learners who were dropping out, and might throw the retention rate figures into question.

So, the question really is: Why is this province not scoring better or making clear strides in the schools for which it is accountable?

If I look at the DBE subjects per school report on matric 2020, I see a perplexing picture. How does a province with the potential and environmental benefits as described above render such a mediocre performance on these high enrolment subjects, coming in fifth in four cases, third in only three, and in seventh place in two of them?  I have pointed out the disturbing trends regarding Maths and Science above. 

Source: DBE 2020 school subject report table 4.2


I am not an academic but I am concerned for the children in the province in which I serve as the leader of the opposition in the provincial legislature.

A few observations, appeals and recommendations follow.

The fact that there has been a dramatic decrease in the diversity and representivity of the senior management in the province since 2008 has clearly affected not only morale but has, in my view, resulted in a loss of focus on the poorest schools in our province. In 2008, there were 11 senior African managers. That dropped to only one in 2019. Diversity of management can only strengthen the team. It is clear that in the Zille years, 2009 to 2019, no efforts were made to maintain diversity and representivity in the senior management of the WCED. It is a truly shocking statistic. What we have is a classic DA narrative of “race does not matter”. I believe this has contributed to a gradual and steady neglect of schools in the African and coloured communities. 

Free State is clearly boxing above its weight as is, increasingly, KZN. Gauteng is performing remarkably, especially given its huge population (an additional 12,362 candidates in 2020 vs 2019). 

Limpopo, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga outdo the WC in several progressive respects such as proportion of learners taking Maths, Science etc. 

What is it that these other provinces are doing that the WC should learn from?

The WC schools clearly have the potential to do better. We see how the results are poorer than they were up to 2017, while the retention rates remain similar. Other provinces are achieving better results than the WC, despite its relative standing on metrics like poverty and the benefit of having four tertiary institutions in the province.  The paucity of learners taking Maths and Science as subjects is alarming.

The lack of a dedicated focus on school turnaround strategies involving parents and the broader community is evident. The unwillingness to actually support schools directly by building local social capital is apparent.  

I believe the MEC and the WCED have taken their eye off the ball. They have neglected supporting schools most in need. An attitude of complacency and being content if the former Model C schools are doing well has taken root. This really is about both the leadership and management of the WCED. 

Recommendations to the premier, MEC and WCED

  1. Stop being defensive and actually address the obvious weaknesses pointed out above.
  2. Ensure that the appalling lack of diversity and representivity in senior management is addressed. Do an honest assessment of what happened since 2008 regarding senior African managers. Build a truly diverse and representative WCED management. 
  3. Embrace redress and acknowledge the massive inequality which exists in schools on the Cape Flats, townships and rural areas. Ensure that the entire department is focused on this. Bridging the digital divide in our province is central to redress. 
  4. Make a conscious effort to allocate resources, including teachers and subject advisers, to ensure that greater numbers of learners from disadvantaged schools can offer Maths and Science, and succeed.
  5. Work with the learner leadership in our schools and listen to what they are saying about how to support their schools. Don’t demonise teacher unions – work with them. 
  6. Develop a detailed and concrete plan to support each school that scored below 60%. Reinvigorate your School and District Improvement plans and focused target-setting.
  7. Stop the blame game. Gauteng and KZN also have to deal with accommodating learners from other provinces. They don’t complain. They get on with the job. The results are obvious.
  8. Cut back on nice-to-haves and redirect budget and personnel to the things that will put our province on a stronger footing.
  9. Deal with racism in our schools and stop double standards in how transgressions by former Model C teachers are dealt with compared to those in former DET and HOR schools. 
  10.  Visit the Free State and learn what they are doing and report to the legislature.

In conclusion, my commentary in this article is by no means intended to detract from the huge efforts made by learners, teachers, parents and departmental officials to contend with the extreme challenges of 2020.  

We express our deepest condolences to the families of those teachers who passed on due to the pandemic in 2020. 

The Western Cape Education Department can and should be doing better.

It starts by being concerned with each school. And being even more concerned with those schools in communities most afflicted by the pathologies of poverty, inequality, GBV, unemployment and the scourge of gangsterism and drugs. DM   


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