03/01/2012 Estatic matric students from Partkown Girls High School celebrate after receiving their results for the 2012 Matric exams. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

THE National Senior Certificate national pass rate of 73.9 percent is the highest since 1994 and gives cause for celebration. A long-term review gives perspective: from a start of 58 percent in 1994, the pass rate improved steadily until 2003, when it peaked at 73.3 percent, before five “lean years” of gradual decline until a low of 60.2 percent in 2008. From 2009, we have improved annually. The national trend is one of overall improvement over the past 19 years. It is this progression over time that is the surest indicator of some of the sustained progress being made.

An analysis of the trends for each of the provinces for the past 15 years shows the same pattern of gradual improvement, with some interesting provincial variations.

Gauteng has over this period gradually improved its performance relative to the national average – from its lowest base of 52 percent in 1997, when it was only 4 percent above the national average, to 84 percent in 2012 – 10 percent above the national average.

The Western Cape, with 74 percent in 1997, had a 27 percent lead on the national average, but is now only 13 percent ahead of the pack, which is catching up.

But the historical and current contexts of the provinces differ markedly. The Western Cape and Gauteng are both relatively well-resourced provinces. Limpopo, a poorly resourced province, has, despite several troughs, gradually improved its performance from 32 percent in 1997 to 67 percent in 2012 – an increase of 35 percent over 17 years.

Other provinces show similar trends, particularly the Free State and the North West, which have improved steadily, from 43 percent and 50 percent respectively in 1997 to both now achieving in the region of an 80 percent pass rate.

Professor Sizwe Mabizela, the chairman of Umalusi, said in December that, while our “education system still fails dismally to free the full potential of the majority of our young people”, we need to interpret our progress in an understanding of the current state of education in South Africa and “resist the temptation of joining the chorus of the cynics, the pessimists and the doomsayers who would have us believe that ours is a lost cause”.

But what are the challenges? In summary, there are five priority challenges. First, we must improve the pass rates in those provinces which have the greatest number of candidates: KwaZulu-Natal offers a massive 25 percent of the NSC candidates nationally. Together with the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, it accounts for 53 percent of all NSC candidates. There is room for improvement in both the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, while KZN performs comparatively well.

KZN’s steady improvement from 54 percent in 1997 to 73 percent in 2012 is significant in other respects. Despite being one of the poorest provinces with high infrastructure backlogs, it has the highest retention rate in the country of pupils between Grade 10 and Grade 12. It retains more than 60 percent of its pupils between these grades, while the national retention rate between Grade 10 and Grade 12 is about 50 percent.

We must retain more of our pupils to Grade 12 and cut the human cost of the large numbers who leave with no formal school-leaving certificate – particularly male pupils. My calculation is that, for the Grade 12 classes of each of the years of 2008, 2009 and 2010, only 52 percent of the pupils in Grade 10 (two years before Grade 12) wrote matric. In 2011, this dropped to 50 percent, and in 2012 only 49 percent of the Grade 10 class of 2010 wrote matric.

On the basis of the 2012 rate, we can estimate that only 36 percent of the 2010 Grade 10s passed the NSC in 2012. This ratio is a rough measure – there are a large number of “repeaters” in Grade 10 (in seven provinces this is the largest of the 12 grades). But it does give us an indication of how many young people who register in Grade 10 eventually write matric.

The Department of Basic Education should publish annually, with the NSC results, for each province and nationally, the retention rate between Grade 10 and Grade 12 for that year’s NSC cohort.

Each province (and every school) should account for both retention and pass rate.

There are marked differences in retention between provinces. Some showing improvement in pass rates over time have retention rates well below the national average. If we improve retention, we might have a much larger number of candidates, but a lower pass rate. This requires a shift from our narrow focus on the pass rate alone to holding both pass rates and retention rates in balance.

Would a 55 percent pass rate with a 75 percent retention rate be better than a 75 percent pass rate and a 55 percent retention rate? This speaks to our values: retaining more pupils to a credible exit point increases skills levels for economic development, and it would also increase the number of young people with a sense of belonging, participation and inclusion, which is surely a pressing social goal.

Perhaps we should fix the pass rate at a target of 75 percent, and emphasise annually improving targets for reducing dropout, while the pass rate remains constant.

Increasing the retention rate is therefore the second challenge. This requires building quality foundations from the early years. Repetition is linked to dropout. Sarah Gilbert Meny has shown that 52 percent of the pupils in Grades 11 to 12 have repeated a grade, and 9 percent have repeated three times or more.

This is directly related to the third challenge, to improve performance from the early years. The 2012 Annual National Assessment (ANA) for Grade 4 reflects a 37 percent national average for mathematics, and 43 percent for home language. This poor performance lays the basis for the large dropout rate six to seven years later and the low levels at which people are passing matric. Improving quality in the foundation will improve retention, and improve the quality of passes at NSC.

The fourth challenge is therefore to increase the number of students who are passing at higher levels. In many subjects, marks “bunch” below 50 percent in the NSC.

In 2012, only 36 percent of the candidates who wrote maths passed with a mark above 40 percent. We do not know how many candidates passed at the higher intervals, but there are declining single-digit pass rates above 50 percent in maths.

We need reasonable proportions of good and excellent marks, and more candidates passing at higher levels. The report on the 2013 NSC should provide information on the proportion of pupils passing at intervals of between 40 and 90 percent for all subjects. The recently announced ministerial commission will provide this information for the previous years of the NSC, so that trends can be assessed over time.

The fifth and fundamental challenge is obscured in the “averages” of the NSC pass rate and ANA performance. There is a chasm of inequality in education, with poor schools concentrated well below the mean, dragging overall performance down. In 2011, 74 percent of schools situated in the wealthiest 20 percent of communities nationally achieved an 80 to 100 percent pass rate, while only 30 percent of schools serving the poorest 60 percent of communities achieved this.

We cannot continue to fail our poorest pupils and communities. In the 2012 ANA, 42 percent of the Western Cape’s 84 000 Grade 4 pupils achieved “adequate and higher” levels of performance in maths.

This is overshadowed by the 118 000 Grade 4 pupils in Limpopo who only achieved 14 percent at this level. If we want to improve overall performance, we must significantly improve education for the poorest of our children, who are the majority.

The five challenges are clear: improve success from primary school; reduce the dropout rate in Grades 10 to 12; increase the proportion of pupils who are passing at higher levels; focus on the provinces which have inherited the greatest portion of the apartheid devastation, and where the largest numbers of the poorest children live; and reduce the huge inequalities that are pervasive across the system.

An education system in a just society has a responsibility to deliver an improving quality of learning, but this is more than merely a quest for “higher marks”. It also means a quality of caring and citizen-building in school and community life, and of nourishing responsibility, empathy and creativity. And it means closing the gap between pupils doing well and those doing badly.

Equity is a key feature of productive and happy societies. To achieve it requires both sound policies and effective implementation. The Department of Basic Education has diagnosed these and other challenges, and has a clear and credible plan to address them in its Action Plan to 2014. The National Development Plan reinforces this. Achieving these goals requires strong educational institutions.

The first line of responsibility is with the department and its political and executive leadership. But it is also through citizens actively supporting teachers and schools, and working in partnership with provincial and national leaders, that implementation can succeed, and we can progressively make access to a quality public education for all a reality. To give this support is our individual and collective responsibility as parents and citizens, as is our parallel responsibility to hold officials accountable, to ensure fairness and that promises are kept.

n Metcalfe is an education specialist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and a visiting professor at Wits and the University of Johannesburg.