Strait Is The Gate The Matric Conundrum II - Outcomes

Charles Simkins | Jan 12, 2017
Youth Brief 1 described the structure and objectives of the National Senior Certificate system. This companion brief discusses published National Senior Certificate outcomes.

Youth Brief 1 described the structure and objectives of the National Senior Certificate system.  This companion brief discusses published National Senior Certificate outcomes.

1. The long view

Statistics on enrolment in Grade 12 and Senior Certificate passes go back to 1970. In that year, there were 46 143 learners in Grade 12 and 42 696 Senior Certificate passes. Figure 1 sets out the ratio of (National) Senior Certificate passes to Grade 12 enrolments and the (National) Senior Certificate pass rate (candidates who passed divided by candidates who completed the examination), from 1970 to 2014.

Sources:  South African Statistics, various years
Department of (Basic) Education, Education Statistics, 2000-14
Note: Since 2000, the average gap between NSC passes/Grade 12 enrolments and the pass rate has been just over 5%. This is because some Grade 12 learners do not enrol for the NSC and some of those who do enrol do not complete the examination

Figure 1 shows that the pass rate has not been constant. It was above 90% up to 1976, and then began a long decline, reaching a low of 50% in 1999. Thereafter it rose again and it has been above 70% since 2011.

One reason for the decline was the rapid increase in Grade 12 enrolments. These were below 100 000 up to 1979. By 1993, enrolments stood at just over a half a million, an average growth annual rate of 13.4%, sustained for fourteen years. Quality was bound to take a hit. Between 1993 and 2014, Grade 12 enrolments have fluctuated between 475 000 and 625 000.  

2. The hazardous route from Grade 9 to Grade 12

The trendless fluctuation in the number of Grade 12 enrolments is the almost static size of the 15-19 age group between 2005 and 2015, though the average rate of growth in the preceding decade was 1.7% per annum[1]. Coupled with that has been a hazardous route from Grade 9 to Grade 12. The promotion, repeat and drop-out rates in 2011-2012 are set out in Table 1.

Table 1 - Promotion, Repeater and Drop-out rates, 2011-2012


Grade 9

Grade 10

Grade 11

Grade 12
















Source:  Department of Basic Education, presentation to Parliament’s Basic Education Committee, 15 March 2016

This pattern remained roughly constant for the twenty years before 2014, and it has led to rapidly diminishing enrolment in Grades 11 and 12, relative to enrolment in Grade 10[2].  

The reason for this high attrition can be found in the results of the Annual National Assessments (ANA) of Grade 9 learners. The 2014 ANA found that 33% of learners were at a level below 40% in their home language and that 90% of learners were at a level of below 30% in mathematics. The cognitive demand of starting to prepare for the National Senior Certificate is just too great for many learners to cope.  

It is frustration with this state of affairs which has led to the progression policy described in Youth Brief 1. The idea is that progressed learners should be given special assistance, particularly in Grade 12, so that they can overcome learning deficits, in part in respect of material covered up to Grade 9.

3. The National Senior Certificate since 2008[3

The key features of developments since 2008 have been:

  • NSC passes have risen from 333 604 in 2008 to 442 672 in 2016. There was a slight drop between 2015 (455 825) and 2016. This increase has been mostly a result of the increase in the pass rate, from 62.5% in 2008 to 72.5% in 2016.
  • Progressed learners contributed 22 060 passes to the total in the November 2015 and  29 384 in November 2016 examination. The pass rate among progressed learners in the November 2016 examination was 43.5%. More passes among the 2016 group can be expected in June 2017.
  • School enrolment estimates by grade in 2016 have not yet been published. However, it can be estimated that the introduction of the progression policy has increased enrolments in Grade 12 from 571 819 in 2014 to about 700 000 in 2016.
  • The number of part-time students who wrote one or more subjects in November increased from 81 552 in 2012 to 107 793 in 2016. The number qualifying for the National Senior Certificate each year is not published, but it is likely to be low.
  • 122 333 candidates failed in November 2014. Of these, 112 331 (92%) qualified for the supplementary examination in March 2015.  90 309 enrolled for the supplementary and 66 304 wrote it. The number of candidates who passed the NSC in March 2015 has not been published.
  • In both 2015 and 2016, there was a gap of 30% between the pass rates in Quintile 1 schools (schools in the poorest areas) and Quintile 5 schools. Since the pass rate in Quintile 5 schools was 92.1% in 2016, further increases in the overall pass rate will depend on improving the pass rate in lower quintile schools.  

4. Conclusion

The Department of Basic Education has developed a system which gives learners as many chances as possible for passing the National Senior Certificate.  Publication of a full account of passes achieved in every year in the February, June and November examinations would help assessment of the effectiveness of the components of the system.  Since the size of the 15-19 age group is now more or less constant in successive years, the quality of regular teaching in schools and additional support outside the regular programme will determine the changes in the number of passes.

Charles Simkins
Head of Research


[1] Estimates are based on the 2015 revision of the United Nations World Population Prospects
[2] Education Statistics 2014 estimated the number of learners in Grade 10 at 1 139 872, in Grade 11 at 897 342, and in Grade 12 at 571 819
[3] The published statistical information on the National Senior Certificate is set out in Tables 1, 3 and 4 of the National Youth Technical Report 1.  It is subject to the limitations described in National Youth Brief 1.