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Cape Town - The Western Cape may have slipped further from the country’s top spot in the matric pass rankings but it has achieved the most university-level passes in the country.
Overall, the province was outperformed by Free State, North West and Gauteng, putting it in fourth place after years of being top performer.
The Western Cape achieved a 85.1 percent pass rate, which is up from just under 83 percent last year, but still trailed behind Gauteng at 87 percent.
North West leapt by an astounding 7.7 percent to rank second at 87.2 percent after not featuring in the top three last year.
The Free State jumped 6.3 percent to claim the crown of South Africa’s most successful matric class after 87.4 percent of its 2013 learners passed.
Overall, the national pass rate surged by over four percent, from just under 74 percent in 2012 to 78.2.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga congratulated the class of 2013 for being “the best class since the advent of democracy” and encouraged pupils to excel in higher education and do well for South Africa.
“For those of you that have not done so well, do not lose heart, there are various options still available to you.”
Motshekga said 99 percent of ordered textbooks, workbooks and stationery had been delivered for this year. The remainder would be delivered before schools opened.
But a number of critics are not impressed. Robert Prince, director of the Alternative Admissions Research Project at UCT, said the pass rate had become a meaningless number.
He said there was too much emphasis on the quantity of passes, rather than the quality. “The questions we have to be asking here are, will the students be able to get into university? And once they are in, will they be able to stay there without dropping out?”
He said institutions had lost faith in the quality of students coming through the South African education system as more than half were unable to cope with the demands of tertiary institutions and dropped out within a year.
“Only 10 percent of students are ready for university-level mathematics,” he added.
For the education expert, the number of bachelor passes were an important indicator of improvement in the education system and he commended the Western Cape for producing the highest number of this benchmark pass in the country – with 40.9 percent of its students obtaining the certificate.
Prince is not alone in his criticism of the pass rate.
The DA has questioned the credibility of the percentages which Motshekga placed at the centre of her results event on Monday night.
DA spokeswoman for Basic Education, Annette Lovemore, said: “Using the pass rate as the main yardstick to assess performance is simply not a credible measure of the quality of education. This view is shared by more and more education policy experts in our country.
“Focusing on the pass rate also masks other crucial indicators of learner performance such as the number qualifying for tertiary education, the quality of passes and the number of maths and science passes.”
She added the pass rate did not take into account the number of learners dropping out of school before taking the exams.
Education analyst Graeme Bloch agreed that the retention rate at schools was a massive issue, saying more than half of the learners enrolling at schools in South Africa dropped out before they even reached matric.
However, he challenged claims that standards of the exams and the education system as a whole were slipping.
“What we are seeing is a constant improvement – the percentages are proof – and I think it is a time to celebrate. Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed, but for now it is time to congratulate the matrics on a job well done.”
Wits School of Education professor Marissa Rollnick said that questions set in the science exams were of a good standard and challenged learners on their knowledge of the subject.
However, she said any emphasis on the practical use of science in everyday life had been stripped away from the new curriculum since it was introduced in 2008.