Durban - KwaZulu-Natal has improved its matric maths pass rate by 8.6 percentage points and its performance in physical science by 6.4 percentage points.

Between them, the class of 2012, which with a pass rate of 73.1 percent were the best-performing since 2008, scored 367 more distinctions in these subjects than in 2011.

But although the pass rate in these and other critical subjects is up, educationists and the provincial Department of Education are concerned about the quality of passes.

In the case of maths, the proportion of pupils who passed with a mark of 40 percent or more rose by 6.4 percentage points in 2012, but still remains at just 29.6 percent. Similarly, although the quality of passes in physical science is up by 4.4 percentage points, only 35.2 percent of the passing pupils managed to attain a mark of 40 percent and above.

At the release of the technical report on the 2012 matric exams, by head of department Nkosinathi Sishi, celebration of the gains made was tempered by unhappiness about areas of weakness.

“We have not done enough – there has to be more focus on these areas. We need to hold a huge seminar to determine what needs to be done to have a better turnaround.”

Come the start of the first term, principals of poorly performing schools can look forward to a grilling from MEC Senzo Mchunu. Thirty-six schools in KZN had pass rates of 20 percent or lower. At four of those schools, all the pupils failed.

“I’m totally unhappy with them – with their results, their principals and their school governing bodies. A school is as good as its principal. And underperformance starts there. They are our target in the first term,” Mchunu said.

Professor Hamsa Venkat, the SA Numeracy chairwoman at the University of the Witwatersrand, said: “I’m feeling more hopeful than I have for a few years.”

Venkat said maths and science appeared to be at the start of an upward trajectory and if ways could be found to continue this, “we might be just through the bottom”.

One way to improve the results was through teacher content knowledge, because there were many gaps, she said.

“If we are dealing with maths and science, we need to work with teachers in the system.”

Venkat said the range of performance from very high to very low was not unusual. It was the scale of the problem that needed to be tackled to get more results above 40 and 50 percent.

Educationist Mary Metcalfe has repeatedly emphasised the importance of analysing the matric results in terms of quality of passes and retention.

Between Grades 9 and 12, a worrying 45 percent of pupils dropped out of school, according to Sishi.

Metcalfe, visiting adjunct professor at Wits, said she believed the national average was a “distraction”. “A narrow focus (on the pass rate) ignores how many young people drop out of the system before reaching Grade 12,” she said.

Professor Labby Ramrathan, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Education, said the improvement in the quality of pass rates in maths and physics, as well as the actual number of pupils who passed, meant very little.

This was because the limited number of places at tertiary institutions meant less than 20 percent of pupils could be absorbed into higher education. Ramrathan said the focus should now be on the promotion of training colleges.

On Thursday, exam quality assurance watchdog Umalusi said marks had been adjusted upwards in four subjects in KZN – Afrikaans home language, English home language, Zulu home language and maths literacy. The adjustments were all by less than 3 percentage points.