In 2011 the Western Cape was the province with the best overall pass rate in National Senior Certificate examinations. Since then the province has slid down the rankings. In the 2014 government matric it fell to fourth placed with a 82.2.% pass rate, behind Gauteng (84.7%), the North West (84.6%) and the Free State (82.6%). The Western Cape did have the highest bachelors degree pass rate (38.8%) ahead of Gauteng (37%), North West (32.6%) and the Free State (30.2%).
Nonetheless, the Western Cape's relative decline on the main ranking has raised questions over what is going on with education in the one opposition-controlled province?
As noted previously, given the great political weight given to the overall matric pass rate there is an ever-present temptation for schools and provincial governments to ‘game the system' in various ways. One means of doing so is to encourage weaker pupils to exit the system before taking the final matric examinations.
Equal Education, among other organisations, has highlighted the issue of the high drop-out rate, with half of all pupils in Grade 10 in 2012 failing to even sit the 2014 matric. In its comment on the matric results SADTU itself accused schools of "manipulating the learner promotion and progress because of pressure to produce better Senior Certificate results. This contributes to the dropout of learners more especially in grades 9, 10 and 11."
The Western Cape Minister of Education Debbie Schäfer states "that when considering the NSC results, one has to consider the numbers of learners passing through the system and ultimately passing their matric. We believe that retaining more learners in the system and giving them the opportunity to pass the NSC is more important than ‘losing' learners along the way so that schools can achieve a higher pass rate."
What then is the impact of the drop-out rate on the relative performance of the different provinces? The following four graphs seek to illustrate the effect of this on provincial performance since the introduction of the new government matric in 2008.
Graph 1 illustrates the overall matric pass rate since 2008. Since 2009 all provinces have experienced substantial increases in their overall pass rates. However, the Western Cape which was ranked first in 2009 has now fallen behind the other three provinces. The gap between it and the remaining five provinces has also narrowed substantially.
Graph 1. National Senior Certificate Examinations 2008 to 2014 - pass rates by provincial and nationally
In order to control for the effect of the drop-out rate it is useful to compare Grade 10 enrolment with the numbers of pupils writing the final matric examinations two years later. In 2012 there were 1 065 329 pupils in Grade 10 in ordinary public schools. In 2014 532 860 (50%) pupils wrote the government matric examinations.*
There was a significant variation between provinces on this score. The Western Cape has seen a consistent increase in the proportion of Grade 10 pupils going on to write matric two years later - from 50.6% in 2009 to 65.3% in 2014. In the other provinces the throughput rate has remained flat, jumped up and down, or declined. Last year Gauteng (56.5%) and KwaZulu-Natal (53.7%) were the only two other provinces where over half of Grade 10s went on to write matric. The North West was the worst performing province on this measure (38.7%.) See Graph 2.
Graph 2. Pupils enrolled in ordinary public schools in Grade 10 in 2012 / full time candidates (all schools) writing NSC examination 2014
Given the provincial variation in the drop-out rate the better measure of assessing trends in provincial performance (than the overall matric pass rate) is the percentage of pupils in Grade 10 who go on to pass the matric examinations two years later. Although this measure is not perfect for a number of reasons, it is much better than a reliance simply on the nominal pass rate.
The Western Cape is the only province where the proportion of those passing the government matric in 2014 was over half the number (53.7%) of Grade 10 pupils in ordinary public schools in 2012. Gauteng was the next best province on this score (47.8%.) In all the others fewer than 40% of pupils in government schooling in Grade 10 in 2012 went on to pass matric in 2014. In the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, North West and the Northern Cape less than a third did. See Graph 3.
Graph 3. Pupils enrolled in ordinary public schools in Grade 10 in 2012 / full time candidates who passed NSC examination 2014
The NSC examinations have been structured to make it very difficult for a candidate to actually fail. The number of bachelors passes is thus an important indicator of the quality of matric passes in each province. When it comes to the number of pupils receiving bachelors passes in the NSC in 2014 against the number of pupils in ordinary public schools two years previously the gap between the Western Cape (and to a lesser extent Gauteng) and the other provinces in 2014 is substantial. The Western Cape has also witnessed the greatest percentage point improvement on this measure since 2009. See Graph 4.
Graph 4. Pupils enrolled in Grade 10 in 2012 / full time students with bachelor's passes in 2014
In conclusion, it is evident from these graphs that if one factors in the drop-out rate by province into one's analysis of the government matric results the Western Cape continues to outperform the other provinces by some distance.
*It should be noted that a number independent schools also write the government matric. The Department of Basic Education does not provide a breakdown, in its report on the matric results, of the number of pupils in independent schools writing and passing the government matric. The effect of this is to slightly inflate the apparent performance of the provincial school systems.
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