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Matric results: More bachelor passes and high-level maths progress

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

The matric results show that high-level passes are increasing as significant numbers of learners now have access to university – and there is a steep increase in those passing maths at 60% and above.

The 2023 matric results are dominating conversations in South Africa, as they have each year in the past. They are one of the traditional measures of education progress and quality, and deservedly enjoy interest from all of society including parents, academics, politicians and of course learners.

The results release is not only the last step of an incredible logistical feat, but they signal learner knowledge to employers, universities, and other tertiary institutions. The 2023 pass rate of 82.9% is commendable, representing a pass for 572,983 learners.

Several articles, speeches and reports published by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) compare the pass rates and numbers. This article focuses on the quality of high-level matric outcomes: learners with a bachelor pass granting them eligibility for university and mathematics passes. 

Contrary to “lower standards” often cited, most matriculants obtain at least a diploma-level pass. Both a diploma and bachelor pass meet the entrance requirements for tertiary acceptance for a diploma or degree qualification. Of those that passed in 2023, only 15% achieved a basic pass, all other learners, that is 85%, received either a diploma or bachelor pass. This is a noteworthy contribution by the DBE.

Bachelor-level passes specifically have also been increasing. In 2023, 282,894 learners (representing 40.9% of candidates) who wrote achieved this high-level pass. This increase has been sustained over the past 20 years, increasing at about 5% a year between 1994 and 2023. Today more than 280,000 learners have attained this high achievement, three times higher than in 2008. This is an undercount and does not include those writing part-time, or those that write in June.

Maths literacy

Before we turn to maths, let’s discuss maths literacy. Maths lit is often unfairly lambasted as an unnecessary subject in matric, but we don’t think of the alternative enough. Before 2008, when the current exam system was introduced, some learners took maths higher grade, some took standard grade, but roughly 40% did not take maths at all.

Surely a situation where all learners take some form of maths is a better situation. Maths Lit equips learners with knowledge and skills for everyday life such as finances, measurement, maps, data handling and probabilities. There’s no reasonable argument about the relevance of this content for young people. So we can agree then, that comparing maths lit to  “pure” maths is similar to comparing oranges and limes. Both are citrus fruit, but they are clearly distinct.

But what about maths passes? We have seen an increase in high-end maths passes over time, with a steep increase in 2023. The number of candidates passing maths at 60% and above has risen from 32,000 in 2017 to 41,200 in 2023. The 2023 achievement exceeds the national target of 35,000 set through the national plans by government in the past five years. This is a laudable achievement considering the university opportunities and human capacity goals of the country. 

How was it done?

What has driven the improvement in general and in maths specifically? The matric class of 2023 enjoyed support in many forms including extra classes, additional textbooks and technology as with previous years. An important but often overlooked driver of improvement happens before matric.

International and regional assessments have consistently shown a steady improvement, except the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) results affected by the pandemic. South Africa’s gains in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) at the Grade 9 level were strongest among the most disadvantaged learners coming from no-fee schools.

The gains we saw in Grade 9 for this specific cohort have translated into gains in matric. Future improvements in matric will also need to come primarily from an ongoing strengthening of the overall education system.

In summary, while the overall matric results have improved, it is especially encouraging to see that high-level passes are increasing, significant numbers of learners now have access to university and there is a steep increase in those passing maths at 60% and above. While there are still challenges that need to be addressed, these achievements deserve to be recognised and celebrated. DM

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  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Would love to find out whether the writer has children and if so whether they went to state schools. My spidey sense says that they would be as unlikely to have done that as get treated in a state hospital.

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