The matric pass rate lacks context. Here’s why

At the start of each year, South Africans are told how many learners passed their matric exams, a figure that tends to act as a barometer for the health of our schooling system. Yet, it tells us very little, or nothing at all, about how and why some learners succeed, and others do not. In fact, the dropout rate is often obscured by the matric pass rate.

To better understand why 40% of learners who start school in Grade 1 never finish, we need a different set of indicators that take contextual factors into consideration.

The matric pass rate only tells us about the percentage of learners in Grade 12 that wrote and passed their exams, but it says nothing about how many learners dropped out along the way. If one were to consider the matric pass rate in isolation, you would see an improvement over time starting with 58% in 1994, 76.2% in 2020 and 76.4% in 2021.

“To the lay person, this appears to be an improvement in educational outcomes. However, this is not necessarily the case, and viewed in isolation these statistics are misleading. So, it becomes essential to consider the matric pass rate alongside other indicators, such as the dropout rate,” says Merle Mansfield, Programme Director of the Zero Dropout Campaign.

Linking the right indicators to learners’ lived experiences

A new in-depth report by the Zero Dropout Campaign explores the role that context plays in shaping a learner’s complex journey through school. The report, titled ‘School Dropout: Context Counts’ draws on qualitative case study data to make the everyday lives of learners, and the many barriers they are up against, visible. Understanding the contextual factors that drive disengagement and dropout will allow us to design dropout prevention and support programmes that respond to the real needs and experiences of learners.

While the reasons for dropout differ from person to person, the consequences are largely the same: it cuts young people off from many life chances, including finding employment. Young people are 6.5% more likely to get a job[1] if they have a matric certificate.

The new report, due to be released on the 19th of January 2023, explores the role of school culture, absenteeism tracking, and psychosocial support in preventing dropout. In doing so, it delves into the contextual challenges that schools face and the innovative ways these schools are trying to overcome them.

“Our report shows that while making their way through school, many young people are also trying to uplift their families, avoid bullies, achieve social status, stay safe, catch up on missed learning, and find a sense of belonging,” Mansfield explains.

“For example, the barriers to access for a boy that lives far from school in a rural setting with a caregiver that hasn’t finished matric themselves compared to a girl who lives in an urban, but gang ridden area, are different, which is why our responses must be adaptable,” she adds.

Early warning systems respond to context

The findings of the report show that early warning systems coupled with psychosocial support interventions, are effective measures to address dropout.

“The report recommends tracking, monitoring and understanding learner-level data, and identifying trends in school disengagement so that schools can respond to early warning signs with psychosocial support at the right time,” says Mansfield.

Effective dropout prevention demands that we also capacitate, resource and support schools to be responsive to learners’ needs, firstly by ensuring learners have the opportunity to be heard.

“Ultimately when it comes to preventing dropout it is important that we have systems and policies in place that tackle dropout systemically but that are also flexible and innovative enough to recognise the unique challenges that every situation presents,” Mansfield concludes.

Want to hear more about this topic? The Zero Dropout Campaign, along with a panel of principals, teachers, activists and DBE are set to discuss the report’s findings during a Twitter Space titled Matric Results: How many learners actually make it to matric?’ on Thursday, 19 January at 6:30pm.