Matric: a 50-year review

| November 9, 2010
By Frans Cronje
Much has been said about the quality of schooling in South Africa.

One debate that has continued to make the headlines is whether the school system of today is any better than that under apartheid. A number of commentators have charged that the public education system of today is no better than that of Bantu education. Others have responded that such a comparison is ridiculous. Some have pointed out that the fact that this debate is even taking place points to a deep malaise in our public school system.

How good is the public school system today and, specifically, is it any better for black children today than it was 20 or even 50 years ago?

Tracking performance from 1955

To answer the question, the Institute of Race Relations has gone back to the 1950s and tracked the performance of black African matric pupils from 1955 to 2008/09. The review tracks the number of black Africans who wrote matric, the number who passed overall, and the number who got a university entrance pass. It is a story that highlights the worst evils of the apartheid system.

In 1955, only 598 black Africans sat for their matric exams. Of these, 90 (or 15%) achieved a university entrance pass. Only 259 (or 43.5%) achieved a pass. These numbers increased relatively rapidly through the early 1960s – although only because they were growing off such a low base. By 1965, some 1 339 black Africans sat for their matric exams – almost three times the number of a decade earlier. Of the 1965 class, 323 (or 24.1%) achieved a university entrance pass. The number who passed in that year was 827 (or 61% of the class).

The numbers again almost doubled by 1970, when 2 846 black Africans wrote their matric exams. Of this group, 1 103 (or 35.6%) got a university entrance pass, while 1 865 (or 65.2%) passed. The 1960s had therefore seen significant increases in both the number of black Africans writing their matric exams and in the proportions of those
pupils obtaining passes and university entrance passes.

Accelerated growth from 1970, but lower pass rates from 1980

Growth in the numbers really began to accelerate through the 1970s. By 1975, some 8 445 black African pupils were writing their matric exams. Of these, 3 520 (or 41.7%) obtained a university entrance pass, while 5 400 (or 63.9%) passed overall. In 1980, some 29 973 black African pupils wrote matric. However, in this year something peculiar began to happen, as the university pass rate fell by almost half to 15.7%. The overall pass rate also fell, to 53.2%. As a result, only 4 714 of these pupils achieved a university entrance pass in 1980 – a number showing only a marginal improvement from that of 3 520 in 1975. These low pass rates have generally been continued all the way up to the present.

By 1985, while 82 815 black Africans were writing their matric exams, only 9 938 (or 12%) achieved a university entrance pass. Of that year’s class, 38 923 (or 47%) achieved an overall pass. By 1990, the number of black African pupils writing matric had rocketed to 255 669. However, disappointingly, only 23 010 (or 9%) obtained a university entrance pass – the lowest pass rate on record. The number of pupils obtaining an overall matric pass was 109 938 (or 43%) – marginally lower than the 43.5% of 1955. The university entrance pass rate eventually bottomed out at 8% in 1993. In that year, the overall pass rate also touched a record low of 37%.

Revealing data

The story of matric performance through the late 1990s and 2000s is relatively well known. Black African pupil numbers continued to rise, breaking though the 400 000 barrier in 1994 and reaching 466 474 in 2009 – an increase of over 78 000% since 1955. The university entrance pass rate for 2008 was, however, 13.4% – which was significantly lower than that of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The overall pass rate bucked this trend and, at 54.5% in 2009, was 10 percentage points higher than that of
1955, but lower than the peak pass years of the 1960s and early 1970s.

All this data tells us a number of things. The first is that access to education for black Africans has improved appreciably from the appallingly low levels of the 1950s. Today, approximately 500 000 black Africans get the chance to write matric. However, we put this number at about 60% of the age cohort that should be writing matric.
This means that much still needs to be done to improve access to education. The second is that, at the level of a university entrance pass, the quality of the school system appears to have declined.

The university entrance pass rate has fallen by more than half from the levels maintained in the 1960s and 1970s. The turmoil of the 1980s, and instability that it caused in schools, may carry much of the blame for this, as it is in that decade that we see the steepest fall in the pass rate. However, if this speculation is correct, it also means that we have never managed to restabilise our school system.

The third is that, at the most basic level of education, roughly the same proportions of children pass today as at any other time over the last 50 years. This suggests that, on a basic level, the quality of education provided in South Africa’s schools may not have shifted much over the last 50 years. What should also be of concern is that the
overall school pass rate remained relatively static, even as the university pass rate fell. This may suggest a dumbing down of the former.

The fourth point is that demands on school leavers in terms of skills may be far greater today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Information technology and a change in South Africa’s industrial base mean that employers are likely o demand a greater level of skill from their employees. Combined with South Africa’s post-1994 labour market regime, this may have had the consequence of further limiting employment opportunities for matriculants.

The fifth is that the average size of the matric class today is almost three times greater than the average tertiary education intake. This suggests that that matriculants are not well enough prepared for matric and/or do not have the financial resources for tertiary study. On these last two points, there is probably near universal agreement.

A circular and pointless debate?

So are schoolchildren today better off than their parents and grandparents 30 and even 50 years ago? The answer depends on what you are measuring. If you are measuring the opportunity to attend school, the answer is yes. If you are assessing the child’s chance of receiving an education, then the answer is more complicated and might even be no.

The argument about whether Bantu education is better than that of today is therefore a circular and pointless debate. However, reviewing the data of the last 55 years is anything but pointless. It reveals starkly the mammoth challenge inherited by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994. It also shows us just how little progress we have in fact made in meeting that challenge, and how far we still have to go.

Frans Cronje is Deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). This article f irst appeared in a Research and Policy Brief published by the Institute in September 2010, and is reprinted here with the Institute’s kind permission. The SAIRR will publish the complete 55-year review of matric results in its South Africa Survey 2009/10, which is due to be released later this year.

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