For the first time in three years, matric enrolment is down – by almost 40 000 candidates.
According to the national Department of Basic Education’s progress report on the preparations for the National Senior Certificate exams, there were 636 814 full-time candidates this year, 37 838 fewer than last year.
It was the first time since 2014 the number had fallen.
In KwaZulu-Natal, enrolment has dropped by 15 399 –from 169 023 in 2016, to 153 624.
Despite this, the province still has the largest matric cohort in the country.
At first glance, the drop could be attributed to the progressed – or “pushed through” – candidates choosing to “modularise” their exams this year.
The newly introduced option allows struggling pupils to choose to write their exams over two sittings – one in December and one in June.
Nationally, there were 101 360 progressed candidates writing this year.
This marked a decrease of 7 382 from the 108 742 who wrote last year.
And in KZN, the number had actually risen – albeit by 231 – from 26 046 to 26 277.
Education expert at the UKZN School of Education Professor Labby Ramrathan said yesterday that he could not explain the drop.
But he speculated that it could be as a result of “gatekeeping” or holding back Grade 11 pupils who were at risk of failing matric.
“Schools which are in danger of not meeting the benchmarks required might be holding pupils back to try to boost their pass rates.”
He said it could also have something to do with the scholar attrition rate.
“Because of the high unemployment rate, people find themselves in difficult situations and it leads to a high dropout rate,” he said.
“There is a sense that a school education does not bring with it much material benefit.”
Allen Thompson, National Teachers’ Union deputy president, agreed with the latter.
He said a lack of discipline at schools and that pupils had to travel long distances to get to school led to despondency and discouragement.
“You would have to look at how many children entered the schooling system 12 years ago and compare it to the number of matrics now to get a clearer view,” he said.
Professor Wayne Hugo, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of education and development, said the lower enrolment appeared to be the result of gatekeeping.
But he said that holding pupils back because they were not going to pass, was not always a bad thing.
“It might be being done for sound educational reasons because our matrics aren’t ready to write their exams,” he said.
Education director-general Mathanzima Mweli and a team from the department presented their report to the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education earlier this week.
In terms of the department’s readiness, Mweli said the registration of all exam centres and candidates had already been completed.
Question papers had also been set and externally moderated.
Mweli said that to avoid question papers being leaked this year, all 212 storage points across the country had been audited to ensure compliance with the minimum security standards.
The department had also adopted a “just-in-time” printing process to reduce the risks associated with storing question papers for a long time.
Final state of readiness visits to all provincial departments will start next week and the exams begin at the end of October.
This year’s results will be released in early January.