Cape Town, 10.10.05: Zella Kuhn from Westerford High school writing her Afrikaans Higher grade paper , the start of the matric exams Picture: Brenton Geach

KwaZulu-Natal - High schools, some desperate to keep their state subsidies and others bent on maintaining a 100-percent pass rate record to maintain their reputation for high standards, are holding back Grade 11 pupils who are at risk of failing matric.

Educationists have slated the so-called gatekeeping, arguing that it was not in the child’s best interest and it could end up with pupils dropping out of school altogether rather than repeating Grade 11.

Professor Labby Ramrathan, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Education, said his 2008 research had found that Grade 11 pupils were subjected to matric-level assessments to suss out the weaker performers, who were then not promoted to Grade 12. Subtle pressure was often put on parents to remove these children from the school. But at other schools, gatekeeping was a way of supplementing the budget.

“The more pupils, the larger the (government) subsidy. So pupils were made to repeat grades to increase pupil numbers,” he said.

Doron Isaacs, from advocacy group Equal Education, said the practice was “very prevalent” and that these pupils were among the half a million who disappeared from the schooling system between Grade 7 and Grade 12.

Mbongeni Mtshali, head of the noted Velabahleke School in Umlazi, said he had advised more than 56 Grade 11s at the end of last year to repeat the grade as he knew they were not ready to move to the next grade and would not pass matric.

But, he said, he gave his pupils fair advice when he told them to re-do Grade 11 as it would “only serve the child negatively” if they got to the end of (Grade 12) and failed.



He said that last year, the education department had “forced” him to take back two Grade 12s who were pregnant and returned to school after their babies were born. “They failed. It’s just another frustration for them. They should have repeated Grade 11,” he said.

Mtshali said he made sure there was space in the Grade 11 class for those who he advised to repeat it.

Trevor Kershaw, principal of Glenwood High School, said gatekeeping was a well-known term in school circles. “We don’t do that. This year we had two Grade 12s fail; we knew they were going to fail, we tried to assist them as much as possible, but there was no way I was going to make them repeat Grade 11. Apart from anything else, I just don’t have the space,” he said.

Another township principal, who said he could not be named as it was against department rules, said the practice was “rife” and that principals registered pupils as private candidates rather than as pupils of their school.

Tim Gordon, of the Governing Body Foundation, said that he was sometimes concerned when a school bragged about having a 100-percent pass rate over a number of years. “One cannot but wonder whether they have really put the interests of the children first, and how many pupils have not been given the opportunity to write matric, even though they may have passed if given the chance,” Gordon said. He felt strongly that the matric pass rate should not be looked at in isolation, but along with how many pupils from Grade 10 and Grade 11 made it to matric. “The matric exams should not be about vanity or pride around a school’s pass rate, but about the pupils’ future,” Gordon said.

He believed that at some of the country’s top schools, the standard of the internally set Grade 11 exams were of such a standard that borderline achievers did not reach Grade 12.


The “obsession” with a 100-percent pass rate was damaging to schools and pupils alike, as one or two failures in a matric class did not make the difference between a good school and a bad one.

Anne Oberholzer, head of the Independent Examining Body, said that the exam standards at independent schools were managed internally. Some principals then set higher requirements for their Grade 11s and that way, they knew who would pass matric. The others were then advised to either write as private or part-time candidates or move to other schools.


Paul Guthrie from Hilton College said he was aware that some schools asked pupils to leave at the end of their Grade 11 year if the school felt they would not pass matric, but that his school would offer to assist the parents of a struggling pupil. “We would never ask a boy to leave.”


Panyaza Lesufi, spokesman for the Basic Education Department, said gatekeeping was going on at certain independent state-subsidised schools that had to maintain a 50-percent pass rate to ensure that state funding was not suspended, and also at poorly performing schools trying to make a turnaround, and at those schools wanting only the cream of the crop.

His department had put measures in place to try to stamp out gatekeeping, which included having the marks of all pupils submitted to a central database, and having schools document where pupils went after leaving. - The Mercury