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Can South Africa afford the unintended costs of the matric exams on the overall education system?



Cycle of poor Grade 12 performance likely to continue, unless we pay equal attention to the rest of the schooling system, says Zenex Foundation.

It is time for the great reveal of the 2022 grade 12 National Senior Certificate (NSC) results, and the inevitable, “Groundhog Day” responses of lamenting the unsatisfactory throughput, the number of bachelor passes, and lack of quality passes in gateway subjects such as mathematics and science.

Regrettably, this annual cycle of mediocre performance (in relation to high quality passes)  will likely continue if we don’t pay equal attention to the rest of the schooling system and getting the basics right.

While we recognise the need for a standardised exit examination in the South African context of highly differential education offerings, we are concerned about the extent to which this examination impacts on the rest of the schooling system and question its cost-benefits in the long term.

As it stands, the grade 12 examination is a huge undertaking that requires extensive preparation. It must be noted that this examination is, for the most part, very well run by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), with extensive human and financial resources dedicated to this endeavor.

According to the Department, for the 2022 grade 12 exams, 147 different question papers were set; 8 million question papers were printed; 7,6 million scripts were produced and delivered countrywide; about 7 000 secure examination centres were established; and 65 000 invigilators and 41 000 markers were appointed in 141 secure marking centres”1.

In addition to this colossal undertaking, many parts of the system are heavily skewed towards this end point at the expense of the rest of the system. This includes:

  • The efforts to prepare learners for this last lap of their school journey. The DBE as well as a range of donors pump excessive amounts of resources into after-school programmes, winter and summer camps as well as mock exams to prepare learners.
  • The ‘’relegation’’ of less experienced teachers to the lower grades, especially in mathematics and science (grades 8 and 9 are most affected).
  • The extensive focus of education district officials on the NSC – with an undue preoccupation on the matric pass rate.

But sadly, this extensive effort and investment doesn’t actually meet our expectations as a country, both educationally and for economic development. Let’s look at the grade 12 examination in more detail. The grade 12 examination has an extremely poor throughput rate. Pre-Covid, Dr Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University approximated that of the 1 million pupils registered for grade 1 in 2007, only half wrote matric examinations in 2018, 400 000 passed and 172 000 obtained bachelor passes. One could argue that the real matric pass rate should be calculated against the cohort that started grade 1 in 2007 – in this scenario the bachelor pass rate is not 34% but 17%. Either way, the National Development Plan target of 350 000 bachelor passes by 2024 is unlikely to be achieved.

Staying with 2018, even more disappointing is the fact that only 28% of the 400 000 (112,000) wrote mathematics and 15 000 or 3,7% achieved 70% or above in mathematics with a significant knock-on effect on universities and workplaces2.

We contend that the matric exams come at a cost to the education system as a whole, and high schools in particular – here we refer to the impact that the grade 12 examination has on teaching and learning time during the fourth term of the year.

During this fourth term, very little teaching happens in the lower grades. This is specifically the result of teachers required for invigilating grade 12 examinations and schools requiring the physical space for matrics to write. The unintended consequence is that many schools send learners home during this period – it is estimated that grade 8 and 9 learners lose between 3-4 weeks of learning during the fourth term (this data was drawn from a range of Zenex project and evaluation/research reports).

This results in significantly less curriculum coverage for other grades during this period as the DBE has an ‘all hands-on deck’ approach to the grade 12 exams. This has a major impact on teachers’ prospects of covering an already overloaded curriculum.  The curriculum coverage losses have a compounding effect on learners as they progress through the system. This results in learning backlogs which are difficult to mitigate, particularly in subjects like mathematics where knowledge has a hierarchical structure. In hierarchical subjects, mastery of previous concepts is necessary to learning new concepts.

For example, if learners can’t manipulate numbers with mastery by grade 3, they will not be able to do fractions in subsequent grades which has a knock-on effect on their ability to learn algebra in grades 7-9 and eventually calculus in grade 12, thus creating a need to intensify teaching and learning, as well as support in this final grade.  With the loss of teaching time, teachers struggle to teach their grade-specific curriculum whilst also trying to mitigate learning deficits from previous years.  This results in a vicious cycle of high dropout and failure rates before grade 12, and poor performance in grade 12.  Getting the basics right at lower grades should not be comprised or sacrificed for the grade 12 exams.

The question is whether the cost is worth the outcome.  We argue that getting the basics right is critical for an effective and successful education system. We make the following recommendations:

  • The DBE must claim back the lost teaching and learning time of the fourth term with extreme urgency. This could be done through ensuring that:
  • teaching of lower grades at high school level continues until they write their examinations. They should not be allowed to stop in October/November when grade 12 examinations start.
  • examinations for lower grade learners take place much later in the fourth term than is presently the case, to salvage the teaching time.
  • More effective solutions to the space problems in schools must be found to effectively manage the grade 12 examinations. This needs logistical planning and efficient use of time and space. Where possible, classes and schools can be combined, explore using large centres such as churches and community halls, classes can be conducted outside where feasible, or the school must adjust the timetable once the grade 12 exam timetable is published. This could include using rotational timetable systems or having larger classes during this short period, or scheduling all grade 12 examinations in the afternoon.
  • The DBE and its partners must institute catch-up programmes for all grades. This could be done through using time more efficiently in school as well as using before/after school time.

We cannot wait until grade 12. The investment in this last year of schooling, relative to the outcomes, will not give us long term improvement in the education system and will continue to lag in meeting the needs of our society in general and economy in particular. 

By: Gail Campbell and Dr Fatima Adam


Gail Campbell is the CEO, and Dr Fatima Adam is Programme Director: Research and Evaluations at the Zenex Foundation.

The Zenex Foundation is an independent education grant-maker established in 1995 to improve teaching and learning outcomes in language and mathematics in South Africa. This strategic focus is driven by evidence of a proven relationship between language proficiency and success in mathematics, as critical for overall learner achievement.

The Foundation’s entire budget is committed to the fields of language and mathematics in basic education. To date, the Zenex Foundation has disbursed over R1 billion in the South African education sector, the impact of which continues to be evaluated through extensive research, monitoring and evaluation to ensure that every investment drives the advancement of education.

Every project it invests in is driven by the vision of creating an equitable and just education system that empowers young people to participate in the growth, development, and transformation of South Africa.

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