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By Angelique Serrao, Gill Gifford and Louise Flanagan
The most uplifting aspect of Thursday's matric results turned out to be wrong.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga tried to see something positive in the fact that the overall pass rate dropped from 62.7 percent in 2008 to 60.6 percent, and said that far more pupils met university entrance requirements.
But this was a mistake.
Announcing the results, Motshekga said: "We have seen some positive gains in the results of the class of 2009."
"There is an increase in the number of passes over 40 percent and an increased number of bachelor's passes - from 18 percent to 32 percent. This means that there are a greater number of learners who will be eligible to access higher education."
(A university pass is now called a bachelor's degree pass.)
She then turned to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and said: "I hope you've got a lot more places at university."
Motshekga said this pointed to improved quality in the education system.
"The emphasis in our education system has to be on quality. An 18 percent to 32 percent increase for a bachelor's degree is big. It's quality at the highest level," she said.
Unfortunately, the minister had got it wrong.
In the 2008 exams, 107 274 achieved a university pass after supplementary exam successes were added, or about 20 percent of all those who wrote the finals.
In the 2009 exams, 109 697 matrics achieved a university entrance pass, or about 19.8 percent of those who wrote, according to her department's official report on the exam results. Motshekga's figure of 32 percent for 2009 is calculated off the smaller group of those who passed.
Duncan Hindle, the outgoing director-general of the old Department of Education, admitted the flaw.
"The 32 percent was calculated off the pupils who passed, whereas it was actually 19.8 percent of those who wrote," he said.
"The minister of higher education almost fell over when he heard 32 percent, thinking he would have to get thousands more students into university."
Also, Motshekga's upbeat sentiments about improvements in the 40 percent passes were not clearly backed up by her department's figures.
There were no overall numbers available for the number of pupils who got at least 40 percent, compared to the minimum rate of 30 percent. However, the subject breakdown shows more pupils achieved at least 40 percent passes for accounting, but fewer for maths, maths literacy and physical science.
The maths results were not as good as they were painted.
"A positive feature of the 2009 exams has been that more learners have registered for mathematics (296 659) than for mathematical literacy (284 309). The results for mathematics also show greater differentiation at the upper levels, despite an overall decline in the pass rate," Motshekga said.
She didn't mention that of those who registered to write, far fewer pupils ended up with a maths pass (125 075) than a maths literacy pass (196 666).
The maths pass rate stayed the same for the past two years, at 46 percent, but the maths literacy rate dropped from 79 to 75 percent.
There was muddling of percentage points (the arithmetic difference between two numbers) and percent increase or decrease (the change in the original number).
This made the Northern Cape's plummet from a 72.7 percent pass rate to 61.3 percent look better, with the minister describing it as a drop of 11 percent, when it was actually 16 percent.
Motshekga admitted the overall pass rate was not encouraging.
"The shift in pass rate, though marginal, is depressing. We are disappointed. I have had sleepless nights," she said.
Only KwaZulu-Natal improved its results.
"The Eastern Cape has stabilised at 50 percent. At least they haven't moved back. They've stood their ground of underperformance and didn't go down," Motshekga said wryly.
Of the country's 6 332 schools, a total of 417, or about 7 percent, got all their matrics through the exam.
Motshekga said fewer schools (439) were performing very badly, with less than 20 percent pass rates. She promised improvements.
"Between myself and the deputy minister we will do far more to improve education. We will ensure quality teaching," she said.
"Umalusi picked up that we have a problem with poor teaching generally. Management in schools is weak," Motshekga noted.
Motshekga promised a new teacher-development branch to focus on teacher skills and content knowledge, and streamlined administration.
"Teachers will now only have one file for admin purposes, learners will not need to do portfolios and they will only have to do one project per subject ...
"Even our highly resourced schools are underperforming. We have to ensure our schools work."