Defend Truth


Including dropouts in the matric pass rate detracts from the real issues affecting youngsters


Elijah Mhlanga is Chief Director for Communication at the Department of Basic Education.

There are many reasons why some learners don’t reach Grade 12, but calls to include dropouts in the National Senior Certificate pass rate are bizarre and detract attention from society’s real challenges.

On Thursday, the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, will release the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination results for the class of 2023. Immediately after the announcement, we will see the “real pass rate” brigade coming out to tell all and sundry that the results are not real.

Instead of congratulating the young people for their achievements, the “real pass rate” brigade will seek to attract attention to themselves by “calculating” a number that they will try to make us believe is a “real” figure. In truth, the “real pass rate” is fake news.

The argument from the bogus analysis is that learners who did not reach Grade 12 should also be added to the statistics that the minister unveils in the NSC results announcement. If the number of NSC candidates that enrolled in 2023 is 717,377, the pass rate for the class of 2023 will be derived from that number. 

It is often said that each year about one million children in SA start school in Grade 1, and 12 or 13 years later the number of those who sit for the NSC examination is less than a million. There is no intention whatsoever on my part to downplay the dropout rate in our system, but let us ponder a few points. There are many reasons for learners never reaching Grade 12.  

In February 2022, the SA Police Service released statistics showing that 352 children were murdered from October to December 2021 — nearly four children a day. In the same report, the police said that 394 children had survived attempted murder and 2,048 children were victims of physical abuse. Each of these young people, most, if not all of school-going age, must recover from their physical injuries and cope with the mental trauma they suffered from the violence.  

According to the Road Traffic Management Corporation, in 2020, children made up a staggering 34% of the fatalities in road accidents, up from 31% the previous year. In other words, 672 children under the age of nine died while passengers in vehicles. 

I remember vividly in September 2022 when news broke of 19 learners who died in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, when a truck and bakkie collided on the N2. Earlier that year, another disaster struck when eight learners died in a crash on their way from school in Mpuluzi, Mpumalanga. 

Who will forget the tragedy that occurred in June 2022 at the Enyobeni Tavern in the Eastern Cape where 21 young people died? 

The deaths of 28 initiates were reported in December last year. Annually, no fewer than 20 boys die in initiation schools in SA. Most, if not all of these young men take a break from school to go to the mountains for the initiation.

We have an urgent task to save the lives of our children. It is sad, troubling too that so many of our young people do not finish school after starting in Grade 1. 

We also have a suicide crisis with young people taking their own lives. In October 2023, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group reported that 9% of teenage deaths were suicides.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Alarm should be raised about South Africa’s rising child suicide rates

There are other social challenges such as teenage pregnancies. The number of births by girls between the ages of 10 to 19 rose from 129,223 in 2019 to 139,361 in 2022. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Children who give birth to children — Eastern Cape confronts scourge of teenage pregnancy

Early and unintended pregnancies affect young women’s educational, health and social future. While the Department of Basic Education has a policy on the prevention and management of learner pregnancies in schools which aims to protect the right of girls to access education, the reality is that some of them never return to school, while others go back much later and their schooling is disrupted and delayed.

And then some young people spend a part of their lives in rehabilitation centres for drug and substance abuse, while others go to prison for committing crimes, and yet others lead child-headed households and drop out of school to fend for themselves and their siblings. 

When Motshekga speaks this week, she will talk about the learners in the schooling system who have been supported through the social grants so they are not left behind. In her department, the minister has a myriad of measures designed to bring relief to impoverished families, including providing meals through the school nutrition programme, the provision of transport for learners and the provision of learner material at no-fee schools.

From an academic support perspective, the department led by the director-general Mathanzima Mweli presented a compelling report to the education standards monitoring body Umalusi that demonstrated the support given to learners to ensure that none is left behind and that every learner in the system is given the opportunity to finish with a good matric pass. 

Let’s be honest: there is a group of young people who drop out of school and stay with their parents and guardians at home and do nothing. They simply refuse to go to school, without offering any valid reason. 

More subjects have been added to the curriculum to ensure more choice for more learners in the system. Schools also do their best to support learners through weekend classes, and the success of this is showing in the throughput and pass rate. SA’s education system is getting stronger and the minister will provide more detail on the work done in this regard. So let us listen carefully to what she has to say come 6pm on 18 January.

Instead of grandstanding by the “real pass rate” brigade, let us face the facts and deal honestly with the social matters. Point-scoring and finger-pointing merely shift attention from the real challenges we need to tackle. DM


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  • Miles Japhet says:

    Let’s start with 30% being an acceptable pass rate!!!
    A wonderful ANC sleight of hand that makes a mockery of education.
    SADTU is at the core of our problem as any attempt to make teachers accountable for their performance is rigorously opposed – why?

    • M D Fraser says:

      Because SADTU are a law unto themselves and they have the Govt by the short and curlies, as part of COSATU. SADTU members are mostly undereducated (putting it mildly), incompetent, uncommitted, arrogant and finally – bone idle. Each year their greatest achievement is producing another cohort of unemployables, who don’t even know that they are unemployable.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    It really does not get any sadder. Yes, there is absolutely no doubt that many children do not complete schooling, not just because of the failures of the education system, but because they are murdered, raped (terrifyingly often by their teachers) and become pregnant, also of course become pregnant through ‘consensual’ sex with their peers or older men, are killed in road accidents, fall victim to drug abuse, become criminals, or die needlessly in unregulated initiation schools. But what a line to take to defend the department. I have always held the author in high regard to the way he usually handles quite challenging questions, but the route he has taken this time, to highlight the horrendous societal risks faced daily by our children as a form of ridiculous justification for attacking the ‘real pass rate’ brigade is simply extraordinary. I really didn’t think that he, of all people, would ever stoop so low. I do think an apology is seriously in order, Mr Mhlanga.

  • Corné Els says:

    The math is really very straightforward: Pass Rate = number of students enrolled for Grade 12 / number of students passing Grade 12.

    It’s a valid discussion to have about why this figure is so low, but let’s not get muddled about the math.

    The number of students who do not pass include those who sadly died or where incapacitated during the academic year. The number of students enrolled include those that are repeating the grade.

    The vast majority of those who fail however, are the result of very poor education provided by our so-called department of education.

  • Myles Thies says:

    Passing off one set of consistently poor numbers by comparing them to even worse figures as a way of downplaying them (and in this case brazenly trying to uplift them) is a really poor form. That is even besides the fact that the child violence, accident stats and pregnancy numbers are, admittedly disturbing in their own right, actually small in comparison to the overall number of school going children. The fact is that education under the ruling party has got worse and worse (despite the widely acknowledged above average funding as share of GDP when compared with other countries) and will continue its malaise under this administration. Its only down to the fact that we have many committed educators, at all levels in this country, that make the effort and huge personal sacrifices, that things aren’t even worse than they are.

  • Dermot Quinn says:

    Very strange article to protect the Minister, from well err the Minister. Strange numbers in there as well that are either incorrect, incorrectly measured or just applied in an incorrect place.
    Little wonder then…..

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Even an AI generated response would have been better than this !

  • Andrew C says:

    None of this excuses the fact we have some of the poorest educational outcomes in the world. The government, SADTU and the education department are failing our children. Just introducing performance based bonuses for teachers will make a quick and marked difference. It worked in Brazil.

    • Clare Rothwell says:

      I Googled that. Do you really think our education department could administer something that complex?

      I gave a local teacher a lift to where she could catch a taxi to her school, when I was on the way to mine. I wasn’t sure she’d get there on time, since hers was much further. She said, “No problem, it only starts at 9.”

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    On the contrary you have to include drop outs to get the correct picture. He many could matriculated V how many did matriculate leads to the meaningful percentage.

  • The real Ellon Must says:

    According to the DA only about 54% of Grade 11 pass Matric the following year. This mocks the touted 80%+ pass rate as most drop out before even sitting for the 35% pass rate exams. Does anybody have stats on the % of Grade 1’s that make it to Grade 12?

  • Jan Man says:

    Bla Bla Bla Excuses.

  • Joy Rosario says:

    Two observations here; there is no denying the socioeconomic challenges in our schooling system; what other education department needs an entire branch dedicated to manage those? But at what cost to education? There is no directorate dedicate to school libraries; that was ditched years ago and as a result the school library is not a feature in our schools. A great pity because besides ensuring we have a discerning reading population it serves a pastoral function after hours. Second point; results can be the result of a good coaching academy not necessarily education (teach to the test and all that), the true barometer is the dropout rate at tertiary level; can they manage independent learning? Do they know how to research? Would be good to do a study on the comparative dropout rate of learners who had the benefit of a school library (mostly ex model C) compared with those that didn’t. And no, the digital environment does not teach either information literacy or digital literacy. Our learners are naïve on that score, and make gullible adults

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