Before we get excited about pass rates, we need to understand how they work and why the grading system needs work.

In December 2019 I overheard many conversations between adults and children which ran like this:

“How are you? How is school? Did you pass? Great – Keep it up”.

I think we need to be a nation interested in learning and concerned about education. But as caring adults, we have a lot more learning to do if we think that a sensible question to our children is: “Did you pass?”

Our fixation on passing is reflecting in the recurrent brouhaha over 30% pass in matric. This is stubbornly fake news.

1. The ‘30% pass exasperation’ is clung to by those who think: That you pass matric with 30%.

This is not true. It conflates a subject with a qualification (matric). Matric (National Senior Certificate) is a qualification and there are four levels of difficulty at which one can pass it.


As I have written before:

“The Department of Basic Education pays attention to the proportions of learners passing, and to the proportions passing with different types of qualification. Universities are also interested in the quality of passes – and make a selection from those who apply for university entrance. There is no free pass into university. All a ‘bachelors degree pass’ offers is a place in the queue for university entrance.”

But anyway – for the sake of further argument – let’s pretend a 30% pass for matric is true.

2. The ‘30% pass exasperation’ is clung to by those who think: That the government is just making schooling, and so matric, easier and easier.

Underlying this is a sense that education, before – or in my time – was of better quality. Matric, back then, was hard – it meant something. I will discuss this argument in three parts.

First, I respond to those who think “before” was under Apartheid. To these people I ask: On what basis are you saying education (and so matric) was better/harder under Apartheid? They quickly flounder on what is being measured and compared. A quick recap about Apartheid: We had 19 different departments of education. There was not a single curriculum against which matric was written. Your matric depended on your province and your race.

With white South Africans, I ask: Do you mean it was better for us, for whites, before? When we whites, were 10% of the population, and had 10 times more spent on us than on our fellow citizens? You think that was better? When we could pass matric with 33%, at a lower grade, standard grade or higher grade? That was better? When we could choose to drop maths in Standard 8 – that was better? Come on.

With black South Africans, my discussion turns to their schooling, and what was being offered to the majority in South Africa. We agree pretty quickly that schooling has improved. At least a 30% pass mark is no longer the focus.

Second, I respond to those who think “before” was 10 or 20 years ago. To these people I ask: 30% of what? They too, quickly flounder. They are not sure about what was being taught, when. I turn to curriculum reform. A quick recap on school curriculum: OBE, Curriculum 2005, NCS, RNCS, CAPS. I again ask, on what basis are you saying education (and matric) was better/harder at that time? Some people argue that each curriculum has become easier. They seem to just hold this as a belief. They don’t give much evidence for it.

When I ask: What data are you using to claim that the matric is getting easier? They quickly flounder on what exactly is being measured and compared. I usually then suggest we focus on mathematics. I explain the improvement trajectory we see from international assessments. South Africa is the most improved country. Yes, it’s from a very low base. I know that. But it is improving. And improving means: It is not getting worse. It is not staying the same. So it was not better before. We can then have a decent discussion about what more we might do, and how we should strive for faster improvements.

Third, for those who think that ‘back then’, at least passing matric meant something. They are right. Back then, fewer people were in secondary school. Back then, there was less competition for entry into employment or further study. But not because the South African matric has got easier or because the pass mark is 30%. This is a global trend where higher education levels are expected and there are more people competing for jobs. Now passing matric has less currency – how well you do in matric holds the key to opening or closing opportunities.

3. The ‘30% pass exasperation’ is clung to by those who just can’t internalise that a learner who doesn’t know 70% of a subject matter is deemed to have passed that subject.

For the logic of this argument to hold, schooling is thought of in a particular way. Schools have a particular purpose. A school subject must have a well-defined body of knowledge (comprising 100% of that subject). This is defined in the school curriculum. 100% of the body of school knowledge is to be transferred or delivered to the learner. To me, this suggests a worldview where “education is a postal system”. Subject knowledge is delivered through schools as a full or partial parcel of knowledge.

In this paradigm, examinations are thought of in a particular way. The matric exam tests 100% of the matric parcel. And the percentage that someone gets in a matric exam measures how much of that parcel the learner has. Here, a percentage in a matric exam is a proportion of what is knowable (and also testable) about that subject. Thirty percent, or 40% or 50% is taken to be a meaningful cutoff of what is agreed to be “an acceptable amount of knowledge”. I think this belief stems from the false view that schools are just places to accumulate knowledge. A consequence of this logic is that schools are places from which one ought not to escape until you can prove – in a test – that you now “know enough”. When school finishes, so does learning. This is simply not true. Learning is lifelong – and can take place in or outside school, and at any age.

A view of education as a postal service does not take into account schools as places where children mature to become adults. We hope they develop some basic competencies: an ability to communicate, to learn, to solve problems and to work alongside fellow citizens (Quick reminder: In South Africa “General Education and Training” ends at Grade 9). A view of education as a postal service does not take into account schooling as a political social sieve. It is a brutal social class differentiator. Yes. Of course, it would be fairer and more egalitarian if one could be certified as “knowing enough”. But guys, really. This is 2020.

This view also misses the complexity of designing quality assessments. No assessment can cover 100% of the agreed curriculum. Quality assessments should be well-differentiated – and as a result, there should be a good spread of results across them. Setting an arbitrary pass/fail threshold (especially ones with high stakes consequences) makes quality assessment design more difficult.

4. The ‘30% pass exasperation’ is clung to by those who think we (or Minister Motshekga) can improve the quality of schooling by making the pass mark higher.

Such a simple solution would be great. Let’s just try this idea on for size:

In the glamorous celebration of 2020 matric results, Minister Motshekga announces: “We in the government have heard you. We know that you are not satisfied with 30% pass. I am sure you will be pleased to hear that from 2021 you will need 50% in all subjects to pass. If you have a home language that is an African language, then you can get 40% in English.”

An analyst quickly explains to the camera: “This is breaking news. Basically you will “pass matric” only if you get a university exemption or matric at bachelor’s degree level”.

Then what? What happens next?

Increasing the pass mark will not magically change the quality or quantity of learning. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect. More young adults may give up sooner. Or they may get stuck in the schooling system for longer. They would fill up the seats next to those who are younger than them. Precious 17-year-olds would be taught with 20-, 21-, 25-year-olds in an overcrowded classroom. And yes – this happens. In many schools. It is precisely why the DBE has a progression policy, why “part-time” matric and why “second chance matric” options are provided.

Increasing the pass mark will not magically change the quality or quantity of teaching. It may also have the opposite effect. Concerned about the pressures to improve pass marks, teachers, districts and school principals may encourage children to leave school, or abandon more difficult subjects. Teachers may teach ever more narrowly to a test focusing only on the content which will get them over the pass threshold.

5. The ‘30% pass exasperation’ is clung to by those who think that expectations matter.

Many liberals believe that success is a matter of individual effort. If only under-performing children put in more effort, or their parents had higher expectations of them, they would succeed. Unlucky. Thatcher tried that. This notion has some persistence though, as there is some truth to a high expectations mantra. Look at matric results of Indian students compared to white students (controlling for wealth) and make some conjectures. But there are some pretty major systemic issues – socio-economic and psychosocial thresholds which mitigate against the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach.

Turns out being black, poor, rural and not English-speaking stacks the odds against you. Turns out too that learning in an economy which does not offer meaningful jobs is also a bummer. As Stephanie Allis points out: “Despite the outcry about a lack of skills in the South African economy, research on industrialising and developing states shows that skills and education generally follow economic development – it has not happened the other way round” (Read more about pass or fail system.)

Of course, there is a tension between structure, actors and agency. And I agree that at an individual level, high expectations are important. In fact this in part why I argue against a 30% pass mark.

Like many who argue passionately about education, I think that those who are exasperated by 30% pass mark actually have the best interests of children at heart. They don’t want children leaving school with an inadequate parcel of knowledge. They are concerned about social justice: those most likely to get the 30% parcel are black, poor and rural. They believe that children, by their nature, will aim for the lowest threshold. They hope that by setting the pass mark higher that our young adults will learn more.

But in voicing their concern about a 30% pass mark, they communicate to the teachers, to learners and their parents that passing matric is our main learning goal. I think this harks back to a time when passing matric was enough to get a job. It harks back to a time when learning finished at the end of schooling. It places a 30% pass mark in the centre. It makes the point of matric, simply to pass it, which is simply not true. In the real world which needs quality skills and learning; where queuing for jobs or future study, matric marks matter, meeting basic socio-economic and psycho-social needs matters, opportunities for meaningful work matter.

I think we need to be a nation interested in learning and concerned about education. We have a lot more learning to do if as an active citizen we think a sensible question to ask our minister of education is: “How many of our children passed?”

Our obsession with a “matric pass” is anachronistic. It does not take into account quality assessment design. It is a relic from a time when not passing had the serious consequence of repeating a grade. It reflects a time when having a matric guaranteed employment and access to future study. We no longer live in such a time. Having a matric is not enough. Not having a matric cannot be the end of your learning journey.

So here is an idea. Instead of being exasperated by 30% pass and lobbying to increase it, why don’t we just scrap it altogether? This is an idea introduced to me by Professor Stephanie Allais (REAL Centre, Wits). Read more here. Her research focuses on the transition from school to work. And it makes sense.

No. Its not a joke. I am serious. I think we should scrap the matric “pass mark” altogether. I will let you catch your breath. Breathe in breathe out. Go get a cup of tea. Make it sugary to calm your nerves.

Let’s try this idea on for size.

Its 2020 and Minister Motshekga makes her farewell speech (she told us she must leave on a high note). In her closing salvo, she announces: “We in the government have heard you. We know that you are not satisfied with 30% pass. I am sure you will be pleased to hear that from 2021, we will scrap the 30% pass mark for matric.” She waits for the applause. Silence. She repeats: “From 2021 we will scrap the 30% pass mark for matric”. A few people clap. But this is drowned out by animated looks and frantic chatter as journalists speed-dial their analysts/ education experts.

The minister clears her throat. She is not yet done:

“From 2021, every learner sitting matric will be issued a matric certificate with their marks on it. They can use that certificate to seek work, or apply for further study. From now on we will be using a basket of indicators to reflect on the quality of our education system (at national, provincial, district and school level). This basket will include:

Indicators for Grade 12:

  • The throughput of learners to matric (measured from Grade R, 1 and 2).
  • The number of learners who wrote matric (full time and part-time).
  • The number of learners who re-wrote matric / progressed learners.
  • Attainment rates for matric:
    • The percentage of learners obtained their matric at NSC level (this is old pass rate).
    • The percentage of learners obtained their matric at higher certificate level.
    • The percentage obtained their matric at diploma level.
    • The percentage obtained their matric at bachelor degree level.
    • Throughput and attainment rates (at each level) for gateway subjects.
    • Throughput and attainment rates (at each level) for LSEN.

We will have similar indicators for schools at grades 3, 6 and 9 for systemic assessments (in Home language, EFAL and Mathematics).

Then what? What happens next?

My hope would be that, such an announcement would shift teachers, learners and parents away from “I passed/ I failed”, towards: how well have I done in my matric? It would help national, provincial officials to focus solely on quality. As to focus on the pass mark, and how many passed is to miss the point. It is an unhelpful distraction. Its saps energy away from a concerted effort from all of us to improve the quality of our curriculum, the quality of our assessment the quality of teaching, and so the quality learning in our schools.

It takes our focus away from our urgent need to create meaningful flexible options for quality lifelong learning. It distracts the government officials from seeing education as one piece in the set of social services. It distracts citizens from fighting for structural change to reduce inequality and aggressively eradicate poverty. It distracts us from having meaningful adult-child December conversations about: How well did you do at school? What is interesting you? What opportunities are you hoping to take up? DM