Maverick Citizen


Our archaic matric exam system dates back to 1858 and can inflict a lifetime of mental scars


Michael Workman is a retired educator. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

There is not one good point about the matric exam. Simply put, it has no validity or credibility and should be withdrawn and replaced by more formative contemporary assessments.

The intention of this article is to give more information about the cruel and inadequate matriculation examination and, in doing so, offer some possible solutions. At this stage, these are conceptual suggestions and will require plenty of refining and pilot trials before they can be implemented.

An article in the Sunday Times, written by “Unknown”, had this to say about the matric exam:

“We participate in the matric-exam circus like stagehands making sure that Tickie the Clown smiles through his heavy make-up; we pretend that the caged animals are not trapped and confined for most of the day but are delighted to come out and entertain the paying customers; we imagine that when the lights (or, in South African case, candles) go out in the Big Top, everybody is happy and content.”

Brendon Bussy, one of the respondents who commented on my previous article on the scrapping of the matric exam argues that “every day I wonder how forcing energetic kids to sit at a school desk in uniform working through exercises can possibly benefit their future”.

This comment reflects the hopelessness many children and their families must feel about the matric exam. The experience does not just go away after the exam, but can last a lifetime, resulting in a sense of failure and poor self-esteem. The exam still haunts my daughter and my daughter-in-law who left school over 10 years ago, plus, I am sure, many others.

Stress and suicide

Educational psychologist Prof Kobus Maree, after a recent matriculation student suicide, explained that pupils in Grades 10 to 12 were inexperienced and lacked the skills to deal with challenges or stress. Matric students should speak out if they feel stressed.

Angst, fear, stress and depression are all linked and, as the time of year for exams approaches, these symptoms working together can be ruinous, increasing the suicide rate of young matriculants who may have failed the exam or not received the number of A’s their parents or teachers were expecting.

Almost one in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa every year is the result of suicide. Up to 20% of high school children have tried to take their own lives. This number continues to expand. The curriculum has to change – there is no argument.

The situation is further exacerbated by an old and rusty curriculum, most of it totally unrelated to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and subject bound.

The first formal examination was conducted in South Africa under the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1858. This begs the question, how can an exam so archaic have any educational merit?

Simply put, it has no validity or credibility and should be withdrawn and replaced by more formative contemporary assessments. I cannot think of one good point about the exam.

Be that as it may, as long as children are able to recite from their notes, have a good memory and the ability to regurgitate facts, they will pass the matric exam with relative ease but, in general, with serious mental health problems. How will this be of any use in getting a job or dealing with real-life problems, conducting their own research and thinking critically in the 4IR?

The status quo has to give way to progress, freeing up the curriculum for relevant authentic learning and teaching.

After the matric exam is written there is plenty of data juggling, all to do with producing acceptable results. However, not one stitch of information can be used to develop the curriculum as there is no qualitative information. Formative assessment is a crucial exercise in delivering feedback, which will certainly assist educators to understand the complexities of contextual issues.

Damper on innovation

The matric exam puts a huge damper on innovation. I shudder each time the Department of Education introduces a new subject or skill into the system, mainly because it is usually comes with little advice or no educational training on “fall-down” matters such as implementation, which does not in any way relate to context, resulting in a “no-fit” situation and countless other “backwash” issues.

This is why most educators see outcomes-based education (OBE) lighting a red warning sign when it comes to innovation. It also explains why so many people are worried standards will drop so that more students pass. The irony is that it is much easier to manipulate marks using summative numbers than formative information.

If the focus is on school improvement, assessment has to be formative and analytical and, by nature, its purpose is to inform, identify misconceptions, struggles and learning gaps and assess how to close these gaps. It also helps to shape learning and can even bolster students’ abilities to take ownership of their learning when they understand the goal is to improve learning, not to apply final marks. The matric exam is a “high stakes” examination with a powerful negative “backwash” effect and has little statistical or educational validity.

As the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation states: “The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by teachers to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.”

More specifically, formative assessments help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work. There is no doubt that a formative approach for matric is the way to go. Assessment ought to be part and parcel of the curriculum – they feed each other and as such should be fully integrated.

Presently, assessment and the matric exam are completely separate entities using two forms of methodology, one drawing from a process paradigm and the other from a traditional paradigm. They are simply not compatible.

It is only when we change the ways in which teachers assess that real authentic change can happen. Every school must have both internal assessment and external evaluation.

It is necessary to ensure that the external evaluations are done annually and that they are systemic by nature, meaning the evaluation takes into account contextual issues and responds to the entire education system. Therefore, if one part of the system is not working it will be corrected before it affects the whole system.

The internal assessment is synonymous with formative evaluation and will be ongoing, identifying strengths and weaknesses and making appropriate changes while working with the student.

Another quote from Brendon Bussy: “My primary purpose is to insulate my deaf learners from the creativity deadening experience of written exam that requires them to write on such topics as Post Modernism, which adds absolutely nothing to their ability to pass in their own world and the skills to survive after school.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Stucke says:

    This is potentially a useful article, but it loses itself in unexplained jargon, and thus has little impact. Better editing, please, DM.

  • Robert Dempster Dempster says:

    Formative assessment has been around for a long time, but it is unreliable in an unequal education system such as South Africa. The unreliability of formative assessment is exacerbated by AI which can generate an essay on any topic given a few key words. Despite its faults, summative assessment in a controlled environment is the only way to sort students into those likely to succeed in tertiary education and those who are more suited to vocational training. The sorting provided by matric exams is reasonably successful. It is true that in South Africa, teaching, learning and accountability all hinge on “pass rates” in the matric exams, resulting in preparation for matric dominating the matric year. Tone it down, but unfortunately we do not have a trustworthy alternative at present.

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    While reading the article i formed the impression that your concerns involve management of the process rather than the process itself.
    Further, the effect on those going through the process seems to be traumatic?
    The purpose of matriculation is to sort a large number of subjects(candidates) according to their skill levels. As preparation for this assessment, the candidates are required to discipline themselves so that they are best equipped to display their understanding of the subject matter. I suggest that the traumatised result from a knowledge of less than optimal preparation?
    I was such a candidate some 61 years ago! I got one hell of a fright when faced with the consequences of my inaction.
    My response was to mentally change gear and employ some elbow grease I had stored up.
    The incident shaped my future and strengthened my determination!
    I feel you should concentrate rather on the process than the candidate?

    • Karin Swart says:

      Well said!
      I agree with your sentiment that if some find the matric exams “traumatic”, the fault perhaps lies with them (or their parents’ too-high expectations) and not with the exams themselves.
      As another respondent stated, the matric exams are supposed to sort between those bound for further academia and those best suited to vocational training. Not everyone can be a doctor or accountant or programmer; we also need chefs, mechanics, fitters and turners, and hairdressers.

  • Sherwyn Weaich says:

    Fair enough, you use words such as’ “authentic and archaic,” throughout your article implying that the matriculation system is outdated. The matriculation system of 2023 cannot be compared to 1958. To look back and provide a comparison, you need to look at the statement and impress it upon similar facts taking into account differentiation.

    Your presumption that the matriculation system was a failure from the 50’s is incorrect, a simple look at innovation such as dolomites, cat scans, full body scans, military capabilities and so much more. At one point the matriculation exam was innovative and pushed the limits itself. South African education now suffers not because of an exam but because unqualified individuals hold positions of authority that limit their understanding of the functions within their roles and that short sightedness results in poor educational outcomes. An example: You won’t ask a builder to do heart surgery so why ask a nursery school teacher to lead a police force?

    You raise excellent points but your reasoning is flawed. As a sound bite you gave an exciting read and it’s probably why I chose to comment and respond but factually, our education system was innovative, has become redundant and needs measurable outcomes.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Matric exams are a test of 18 years of formative learning and academic core competencies. There will always be outliers that are helped or hampered by the exams, but one needs to measure the cumulative effectiveness of all the learning and studies over the scholar’s school years. We can’t have a different test for each person- what would that results show us other than being good and being yourself?! So there has to be an assessment at the end in as much as it’s also an assessment for the future learning direction and abilities. As with any qualification, it requires focus in that area and once done, you can do whatever you like, but at least you have something behind your name. It’s not a damper on innovation, but rather, innovation can wait until you’ve finished your exams! Have some discipline!

  • Brendon Bussy says:

    The current matric exam as it stands assumes a chain of educational stages culminating in tertiary academic education. This is no longer valid for the majority of school goers. Most will never enter academic study because the primary barriers are economic and cultural. Most will never afford tertiary study, and have been hampered from an early age by lack of access to learning resources. Lack of resources can range from lack of transport resulting in chronic absenteeism, to inability to access additional resources even those that are supposedly free – very few SA learners have internet access at home. Culture comes into play when learners are forced to solve problems or develop analysis of exam questions with subtle cultural bias (even the most seemingly logical of questions in IQ tests have been shown to disadvantage non white test takers). This has a huge impact on academic success. At most the current system can only offer a crude filter: those who pass, and those who fail (or attain a certificate with extremely low pass criteria). And the majority fail to achieve the minimum tertiary requirement. And then what? The majority are left without a clear sense of their true ability beyond their failure to succeed in academic exams, which still favour written and non applied assessment.

  • Peter Utting says:

    The 1998 White Paper on Education is about Learning and Teaching. Unfortunately, this has been hijacked by Teachers and turned around to Teaching and Learning, to retain the status of the teachers at the expense of the LEARNERS. Until we reverse this the learners will continue to suffer with examination systems which merely assess the Teaching – we need to be able to know what the learners have learnt, to prepare them for an evolving world.

    • Brendon Bussy says:

      Thank you for reminding me about the white paper. I’ve just refamiliarised myself, the special needs aspect of the paper I’m familiar with, it deals with the integration of special needs learners into mainstream, an initiative which in practice has in some cases been more about cost saving than to the benefit of the learner – many main stream schools just don’t have the resources. However the broader thrust is about inclusivity for learners at risk ie all learners who need additional support, not necessarily special needs. This makes sense in terms of the Workman’s article being discussed here. Formative assessment is a closer fit to an adaptive educational environment, where the learner’s needs are assessed on an ongoing basis and the learning environment is flexible. New technologies assist this approach, but are not accessible to all. None the less moving towards this approach could be possible, if as Workman suggests, we remove the heat of the Final exam. In this teachers have very little say. When teachers are allowed to give input things might change. Ironically just post lockdown there was a moment when teachers were asked. The moment passed, and the heat increased. Teachers will always be needed, and hopefully a time will come when they will be given the capacity and flexibility to attempt to achieve the spirit of that white paper. And not be at the mercy of educational management who believe only in the data. Data first, learners and teachers, second.

  • Johan Buys says:

    I would venture Most people, myself included, have absolutely no idea what is meant by “ formative contemporary assessments”.

    imho the issue with a final exam is not the exam but the twelve years before. Most of our kids should not be undergoing academic tests at age 18 but rather be directed to vocational training several years earlier. Ask firms whether they battle to find artisans or battle to find bookkeepers! Go look how Germany manages education.

    If writing an exam about 7 or so school subjects over 6 weeks is too traumatic, what will the kids do when faced with ten university or college subjects in one week around Easter of their first year?

    The US does not have national grade 12 exams. What happened is that SAT exams developed. If you want to get into college / university, what your school said matters nought : everybody is evaluated to a high stress standardized benchmark without which entrance / admission systems would be a joke. In the UK, more and more universities ignore the government Levels and require an entrance exam that is a harsh time-tight high-pressure exercise.

    The talk about 4IR is an insult to our ten million kids when at age 9 around 75% cannot read for comprehension and have no math skills. How does that foundation even consider 4IR???

    The theorists should step out of their ivory palaces into what our education system actually looks like through the eyes of a nine year old South African child.

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