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Standard of Basic School Education under Scrutiny in South Africa

Updated on January 8, 2017


In the US, the teacher WRITES the test/exam and the students take / sit for tests/exams.

In South Africa, the teacher is the EXAMINER preparing the test/exam - a colleague is the MODERATOR (Proofreader/Editor) - and students WRITE the exams.

Once a year, after the results of the Matric exams have been published, the standard of South Africa’s basic education comes under scrutiny.

Matric exams are taken by all pupils at the end of their 12th year basic school education. When passing these exams, they obtain the highly sought National Senior Certificate (NSC) that opens doors to employment or/and further education at tertiary institutions. If no previous grades had to be repeated, or nothing prevented the beginning of basic education at the age of seven, pupils are eighteen years old when they sit for the Matric exams.

The National Matric pass rate for 2016 is 76.2% - an increase of 1.8% from 70.7% in 2015.

But this official pass rate does not tell the full story, as it ignores the large percentage of students who had dropped out before they could write the exams, said the critics.

“I am not convinced that this annual obsession with matric results is productive. The national pass rate is a very blunt instrument with which to dissect South Africa’s very complex educational problems. The national pass rate obscures important differences in provincial achievements, the urban/rural divide and the unequal outcomes for learners in poorer schools. It also does not tell us much about the quality of the passes, nor about the subjects taken.” - Professor Elizabeth Walton, Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Names of some secondary school graduation certificates

Name of Qualification
South Africa
National Senior Certificate (NSC)
Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE)
West African Senior School Certificate (WASSC)
United States
High School Diploma
Canadian Diploma Certificate of Education (CDCE)
Hong Kong
Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education
Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE)
General Certificate of Education (GCE)
United Kingdom
General Certificate of Education (GCE)

Why are many South Africans upset about their excellent results?

South Africans, or rather many students in SA, compare their NSC to secondary school graduation qualifications of other countries. Students who want to study in a foreign country are upset when their results are not recognized by their chosen foreign university. When this happens, they blame the government for providing substandard education.

Since 1998 government (public) schools in SA no longer offer education on a level system that used to distinguish different intelligence quotients. All school subjects are offered on the same level of difficulty, and pupils may not be grouped into classes according to their intellectual capabilities - which seems to be a rule to the disadvantage of below-average as well as above-average intellectuals. Extra-curricular activities and tuition, such as music tuition, dance, drama, art, sports, etc., are being offered in abundance to fill the gaps caused by the government's shortcomings, but only for those who can afford it.

The results of the Matric exams determine whether a student has met the requirements of universities, technicons and colleges. When a student does meet the requirements, their status is stipulated on their NSC as: "Matriculation Exemption”.

In South Africa a pupil can obtain their Nation Senior Certificate via –

  1. A government (public) school, controlled by the National Education Department for Basic Education;
  2. A private school, and by writing the matriculation exams of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB). Unfortunately, private schools are beyond the financial reach of the majority South Africans.
  3. A home school, via the exams of the IEB. Home schools are controlled by the South African Association for homeschoolers. Unfortunately, home schools are also beyond the financial reach of the majority South Africans, as typically only one breadwinner - the mother or the father - has to generate an income while the other runs the home school.

While universities in Europe and the USA regard the NSC issued by the IEB as proof of sufficient education, the NSC issued by the South African government is not regarded as a proof of sufficient education. Students with a government’s NSC are compelled to extend their basic education according to the requirements of the international university of their choice.

International universities clearly distinguish between the standard of government and private schools in South Africa. For example -

If you are going to Britain from South Africa -

  • If your Matric was written under the NED (National Education Department), you are recognized as having a GCSE, but not your A levels;
  • If your Matric was written under the IEB (Independent Examinations Board) you are recognized as having your A levels.

Universities in South Africa may not distinguish between the NSC’s issued by the government and the IEB.

Complaints have been lodged by the ANC's Youth League about private schools getting far better education compared to the rest of the nation.

Nevertheless, during the past week South Africans regretted embarrassments while provinces boasted about their successes.

Marks in South Africa

Marks –

  • 80 - 100% (Outstanding achievement – pass with distinction) Level 7:
  • 70 - 79% (Meritorious achievement – pass with merits) Level 6:
  • 60 - 70% (Substantial achievement) Level 5:
  • 50 - 59% (Moderate achievement) Level 4:
  • 40 - 49% (Adequate achievement) Level 3:
  • 30 - 39% (Elementary achievement) Level 2:
  • 0 - 29% (Not achieved – Fail) Level 1:

Interesting facts about 2016 Matric exams

More than 700,000 students wrote 2016's Matric exams -

  1. PRIVATE SCHOOLS: A total of 10,775 students - (10 212 full-time and 563 part-time students) with a pass rate of 98.67%. Of this, 87.61% have met the requirements of SA's universities.
  2. GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS: Nearly 718 000 full-time students wrote Matric with a pass rate of 72,5%.

Now this gives this owfma-sa a pass rate of 85.59%, while the official pass rate has been announced as 76.2%.

Of course, this owfma-sa has no idea how 'they' determine the percentage pass rate.

In fact, educational success in South Africa has much to do with household income, the location of the school and good early childhood and foundation phase education opportunities.

— Professor Elizabeth Walton, Associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand

Some embarrassments to be addressed -

Eighteen schools all over the country obtained a zero pass rate!

In the province of KwaZula-Natal, nine schools obtained a 0% pass rate, and 215 schools obtained a pass rate of 30% or less.

I would rather not announce the statistics regarding embarrassments that were caused by the other eight provinces in SA, as it will only activate the ulcers of my readers!

Let us leave all scandals for the government to address!

Reasons for celebration

In the province of Kwazulu-Natal

  • 85 schools obtained a 100 % pass rate. Unfortunately, less than 25% of those who passed obtained a bachelor’s pass - another word for 'matriculation exemption'.
  • The mathematics pass rate in the province improved from 33.23% to 37.91%, while in science it went up from 51.81% to 57.76%. (Mathematics and Science seem to be a big challenge for the child of Africa, while they excel in languages, art, and other subjects.)

The UNESCO Sustainable Development Goal 4, the Continental Education Strategy for Africa on the African Agenda 2063, the National Development Plan Vision 2030, and our Action Plan 2019 provide a clear direction in improving access, redress, equity, efficiency and quality of learning outcomes through the implementation of the Medium-Term Strategic Framework and the National Strategy for Leaner Attainment, said Minister Angie Motshekga.

In the Western Cape Province -

A record-breaking pass rate of 77.2% in mathematics has been achieved - an increase of 2.3% from 2015.

Province of the Orange Free State

With an 88.2% pass rate, the Orange Free State performed the best, followed by the Western Cape's 86%. (One source stated a 93.2% pass rate for the Free State?)

Thanks to winter camps and enrichment programs during mid-2016 to adequately prepare matriculants for the year-end examinations, the Xhariep District in the province - one of the poorest regions of SA, produced the second best results in the entire country, this after being number 78 in 2015.

The province of Gauteng -

This smallest province in the country, though the most urbanized, had a 85% NSC pass rate. Thirty-two schools received 100% pass rates. Some of these schools are located in townships, proving that schools in townships should not all be lumped together. Gauteng learners make up 23% of the Bachelor passes country wide, which is around 37,000 learners.

No municipality in Gauteng scored less than an 80% pass rate, with more than 38,000 distinctions nationally.

The North West Province boasted with a 86,2% pass rate.

One of the many students who passed with distinction - a very special case:

Twenty-two-year old Lungelo Nxumalo had dropped out of school for two years when he fell in with the “wrong crowd” who introduced him to alcohol and drugs.

After rehabilitation he was forced to start high school all over again in Grade 10 to catch up with the new curriculum. He ended up scoring six distinctions in the matric exam, which made him one of the top achievers in his school.

 Lungelo Nxumalo
Lungelo Nxumalo | Source

Happiness and even tears when your name appears in the newspaper, indicating 'passed' and not 'failed'

Ultimate relief and happiness when the results of matric exams confirm a pass
Ultimate relief and happiness when the results of matric exams confirm a pass | Source

Basic education in South Africa: General information

A school year in South Africa is from January to November and is divided in four terms of respectively 12, 11, 10, and 9 weeks. Schools are open from Monday to Friday from about 7:30 am to 14:00 pm. A minimum of 5 hours for subjects are subscribed by government. Daily/weekly ceremonial openings or closings don’t count as a subject.

Challenging extra-curricular activities, such as sports, arts and culture, take place during afternoons and evenings.

Some schools offer subjects in accordance with a specific academic orientation, such as Agriculture Schools, Technical Schools, Art Schools, etc.

Besides a holiday of six to seven weeks from the end of November to the second week in January, students have a holiday of four weeks in July, plus two breaks of about seven days in April and September. Public holidays often shorten a school week.

School Calendar 2017, South Africa

Levels of education in South Africa

Age of child
Grade R-programs
The attendance of preschools in South-Africa is voluntary, though highly recommended. Lessons focus on language, mathematics, life skills, technology, arts and culture.
Grades 1 to 7
Compulsory primary school attendance.
Grades 8 – 12
Compulsory secondary school attendance for Gr.8-9. Gr. 10-12 are voluntary. Secondary schools are also known as “high schools”.
Martie Coetser
Martie Coetser

The opinion of an owfma-sa

For too many reasons to mention, hearing about the failing of Matric exams make me sad and angry.

But seeing the joy and happiness of those who passed is such a joy - to the point of crying my heart out because this is such a special moment and so quickly part of the irretrievable past.

Congratulations to those who passed!

To those who failed: Best wishes for the next try. Perseverance will be rewarded!

Never consider dropping out of school before obtaining your NSC, as you will be multiplying your future efforts to proof that you are competent and able to achieve success in whatever you do. Without a NSC, even when you manage to obtain a complete exemption by virtue of post-school qualifications, a person could easily be an academic prostitute for the rest of their life, offering their brain for half-price or less to whomever wants to abuse and exploit it.

This owfma-sa has spoken!

BTW, an owfma-sa is an ordinary white female middle-aged South African.


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    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      bravewarrior – High time for all governments to invest a lot more in education. During the past week, two public schools were burnt to the ground by a community who is unhappy because the government ignores their request to tar a specific road. This is what ill-uneducated people do: When they’re angry, they burn their own most precious assets. Cut their noses to spite their faces. I’m so fed-up with this 16th Century mentality of too many people in my country. Absolutely deplorable!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      2 years ago from Central Florida

      Interesting article, Martie. Here in the USA, private schools offer a better education than public schools. At least that was my experience, having attended both.

      I love your advice to the "learners" as you call them. Stay in school!

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      AliciaC – the standard should rise - to mention but only one essential change that needs to be done in the near future – after they have managed to solve all the current problems that should have been solved by now – keeping in mind that Democratic SA is already 22 years old. Standards were severely lowered since 1994 to accommodate disadvantaged Africans. When I look at the work matriculants have to master nowadays, I recognize the work I had to master when I was in Grade 9/10 in the beginning of the 70's. I would say today's bachelor degree equals the standard of my time's Hi-level matric. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see the progress since 1994, and I am happy for all who have the opportunity to enjoy higher education at the university of their choice.

      But oh, what a mess! 151,000 matrics qualified for university education, while there are by far not enough space for all of them at our universities. Those who could not be placed are now protesting, as they are not interested in obtaining diplomas at any of our other educational institutions. So, I see another batch of devastating protests in my crystal ball.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      Nadine May - I am an advocate for homeschooling on the understanding that the parent responsible for the schooling has the required skills and discipline. Fortunately, the schools attended by my grandchildren are superb and affordable, so, no need for homeschooling here. For home scholars I also recommend extra-curricular activities such as music tuition, drama, dance, sports, etc. My best wishes to those teachers. I think many will eventually follow suit by establishing private home schools, until the government stops them.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You did a lot of work assembling all the details for this article, Martie. I'm impressed! It seems to me that there need to be changes in the South African education system to give more help to those who need it. It was lovely to see the happy faces of the students who passed their exams.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      2 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Fantastic article. More and more parents go for home schooling, or send their child to a home schooling venue for many other reasons besides money. Just now we have a visitor who bought one of our books from our wisdom cave and he told us that he and his wife were both teachers but recently retired and they started a school at their home for children who's parents simply cannot effort paying school fees. They give back to the community in the Western Cape.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      Dear marcoujor –I can just imagine how much you love watching your students develop into those ‘beyond believe beings’. That’s another subject for primary school students: How to study. I love watching my grandchildren. I think they are much cleverer than I were at their age. Their vocabulary, and the way they reason, is amazing. I take my hat off to all achievers. Even the merest achievement does wonders to a person’s self-esteem. My heart also goes out to those who have failed. May their reasons disappear!

      Thank you so much for your support, dear Maria. Take care!

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      PegCole17 – I totally agree with you. Skills should be taught, and especially those ‘do it yourself’ stuff. I also believe schools should offer subjects like ‘Human Behavior’, ‘Relationships’, ‘Parenting’, ‘Problem solving’, ‘Running a household’… Oh, let me dream on :)

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      FlourishAnyway – Our preschools 1st grade is for 3-years old. So, the kids have 4 years preschool before going to the ‘big’ school at the age of 7. This is however voluntary and the poor can’t afford it. Working mothers have no choice; they just have to send their kids to a preschool. And this is good and to the benefit of the kids. The dropout rates are a matter of great concern. This is often the beginning of a criminal’s life, unless… their name is Einstein.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      vocalcoach – So good to see you! I believe much, much more money should be invested in education, and many changes need to be made in order to encourage enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn. Thanks for the visit, vocalcoach :)

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      always exploring – That’s a movie to be seen more than once, like “Oliver” :) Take care, Ruby!

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 

      2 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Dear Martie,

      Once again you provide us with a comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of the subject of the week.

      I teach students of all ages and cultures. I remember a beautiful older man (actually my age...) who had been a Pediatrician in his country of birth, Egypt. Moving to the US with his wife and children, he is currently in the BSN (accelerated) program where he intends to be a Pediatric nurse. His study habits, follow through and compassion with the patients was beyond belief.

      I think of him as I read some of your examples of success stories - the smiles in the pictures say it all. When someone wants to learn (and apply this knowledge to help others), I believe there is a universal obligation to support our students, at individual and governmental levels.

      Thanks for this series and thanks for your decency. Love, mar

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      2 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      Interesting statistics on the success or failure of the educational process in South Africa. Yesterday I saw three posts on social media that spoke to life learning that is currently ignored in the schools. We used to have home economics that taught the basics of sewing and cooking along with auto shop that taught the basics of changing a tire or checking the oil in our autos. Some of that knowledge seems equally important in the learning process. At least to me.

      It would be interesting to know how social media and cell phone accessibility has affected your area of the world. It seems to be more important here to take selfies and send texts to friends than concentrate on education (or driving or walking, etc.).

      I enjoyed reading your take on this rather serious measurement of education and to discover the differences in our school systems. Thanks for this.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      Education is so very critical. Its the one thing that no one can take away from you. They're not starting early enough (preschool through age 6?). And the dropout rates. Oh, mercy. Education changes everything. But you already know that.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      2 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Wow, Martie, our country seems to run the same way as far as education goes. Why should the rich be privileged with better education than the middle class or even the poor? Money should have nothing to do with proper education of our children.

      Thanks for this excellent piece my friend!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      2 years ago from Southern Illinois

      If I were a rich man lalalalal. Loved it. I would have loved to see " Fiddler On The Roof. " Thank you......

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      always exploring – I have a song for you -

      Hugs to you, sweet Ruby!

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      MsDora – I think I mentioned the national pass rate twice, but seeing that this hub oozes with percentages, I better check what’s going on. Lol! The pass rate – and believe me, thoroughly cooked and baked by the officials who want the government to believe that their department is doing well, is, according to the latest media report:

      The National Matric pass rate for 2016 is 76.2% - an increase of 1.8% from 70.7% in 2015.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      Genna East – One thing is as clear as daylight: When you have money, you can have the best of everything. But we have to keep in mind that the rich are paying more tax on a higher level in order for the poor to have what they can’t afford. Should we raise taxes to such an extent that the rich will not be able to have the best of everything, but exactly the same as the poor? I guess we’re talking communism now. Then I ask myself: Will those who have the talent and the luck to become rich saddle themselves with all that it takes to make money, when they have to share the profit of it all 50-50 with the less talented and less lucky?

      Yip, Christians (and communists) are supposed to share everything they have, but Greed will never allow them.

      Genna, I think it’s easier to be poor, and grateful for all the blessings that come our way :)))

      Sorry for this long reply. You comment gave wings to my thoughts.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      2 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Interesting report on education in SA. It seems the private schools excelled, which is not surprising. People with money have better schools. The same is true here in America, and I do not see it changing...

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Academic success is important in any country, and it is impressive to see the private schools doing so well. You gave a real detail account of the system and the results (although you missed the national average percentage pass--smile). Power to all the students, especially to those in public schools who continue to thrive, and to citizens like you who watch and encourage them.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Excellent piece, Martie. The dropout/non-matriculating rate of 44% is startling. It is heart-ending when any society equates a better education (as is the case with health care) with those who can afford it. We have the same problem, state-side. When will we learn? (No pun intended.)

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      PLEASE NOTE: I had to add this to the hub -


      In the US, the teacher WRITE the test/exam and the students take / sit for tests.

      In South Africa, the teacher is the EXAMINER - a colleague is the MODERATOR (Proofreader/Editor), and student WRITE the exams.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      billybuc – Every week it becomes clearer that our countries have the same problems, or rather ‘challenges’, as our government refuses to use the word ‘problems’.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      2 years ago from South Africa

      sallybea – Reviewing history, the quantity as well as quality of education were always based on financial capability, but not in communist Russia where education was apparently the government’s first priority? Or what do I know?

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great read, Martie! The rich get richer, in many ways, don't they? It really is no different in this country. The rich get better schools and more opportunities. The poor? Well, good luck to them!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      2 years ago from Norfolk

      A fascinating hub Martie with some very interesting statistics. I remember well seeing youngsters walking to school with a black slate board tucked under their arms. It is good to see that things have moved on since those days but is sad to realize that the quality of one's education is often closely connected to how much money one can afford to pay for it. It is no different here and is probably the same the world over.


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