Matric results highlight unequal schooling in South Africa

If we ever doubted the inequality in South African schools, it was finally cleared by the announcement of the matric results of 2020. After 147 examination papers had been set, of which eight million were printed and marked in 179 centres by more than 65,000 markers, the pass rate was 76.2%.

Compared with the pass rate of 81.3% of the class of 2019, this is a decrease of 5.1%. Given the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic and taking into account that some matrics missed school for more than a term, these figures are nothing to be ashamed of: in fact, it is excellent! It attests to the work of teachers, principals, departmental officials and parents. Everyone had a hand in the success of the 2020 class.


The inequality of the South African education system is, however, not the only aspect that was revealed by the pandemic. Thanks to the pandemic, society gained new respect for the role of teachers in the development and education of our children. Parents who were normally critical of the work of teachers and tried to take over that role during the pandemic soon discovered that it is not so easy.

With this analysis, there are three aspects that should be highlighted. First: is there any marked difference between the impact of the pandemic on private schools versus state schools, and if so, what is that cause? Second: how big is the impact of the pandemic on the results of government schools and are there any plans in place to address similar problems? Last, to what extent have the factors which impacted negatively on the matric results, and were revealed by the pandemic, addressed?

IEB schools

The matric pass rate of IEB schools in 2020 is 98.07%. This is less than 1% lower than the previous year’s pass rate of 98.82%. There is thus no significant difference in the matric pass rate of private schools when you compare 2019 with 2020 – the year of the pandemic.

In my view, these excellent results are thanks to the fact that learners in these schools had regular access to online classes. As a result, private schools were able to absorb the impact of Covid-19. Thanks to more resources, private schools could offer learners a full school year. In fact, due to the smooth transition to online classes, they hardly lost any time. In a television interview, one principal indicated that they had not lost a single day. A matric learner at the same school mentioned that they had already been working online on their tablets before the pandemic started.

I must add that many independent schools did not have full access to online classes and therefore had to return to traditional strategies of distance learning. But with capable teachers and the determination and perseverance of learners, a high level of success was achieved.

The impact of Covid-19

The second question which must be investigated is whether the pandemic had an effect on the results of government schools. The following table reflects Covid-19 figures on 21 February, one day before the results were announced:

It seems that while the Covid-19 pandemic had no notable impact on the matric pass rate of private schools, the impact of the virus on government schools varied from slight, to significant, to great and enormous. The figures also indicate that there was no correlation between the number of infections and deaths and the matric results. The decrease in the pass rate of the three provinces where the most infections occurred (Gauteng, Western Cape and KZN) was slight to significant. In the Western Cape, there was only a slight decrease (2.4%) while the decrease in Gauteng (3.5%), the Free State (3.2%) and KwaZulu-Natal (3.7%) was significant.

In contrast, the decline in the results of the rural provinces with their great distances was quite severe: Limpopo (-5%), Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape (-8.3) and North West (-10.6%). The Northern Cape, the biggest province by area, discovered that the great distances between schools and district offices in the absence of online facilities were perhaps just too high a mountain to climb. The pass rate shows an enormous decline of 10.5% which means that the pass rate of 66% is the lowest of all nine provinces.

Cyril’s tablets

This raises the question of the whereabouts of the tablets that the president promised the country’s government schools in his State of the Nation Address two years ago. Could it have made a difference? The mere provision of tablets is not enough to ensure successful online tuition. It requires trained personnel who in their turn can guide the learners. I admit that in the modern era it can perhaps take place in the reverse: the youth in many cases are way ahead of their parents when it comes to technology.

It does not, however, change the situation of the matriculant in a distant rural area of the Eastern Cape who begged in a television interview last year that the government should not forget them. Heartbreaking as it is, it would appear that that is exactly what the government has done. The pass rate of the Eastern Cape dropped by 8.3% from 76.5% to 68.1%.

Basic defects

It will require more than a matric pass rate to convince us that all is well with education. My own research (see the table above) shows that the most important factor, which had a negative effect on the matric pass rate, was not the virus per se, but probably the basic shortcomings in the education system.

An aspect that requires urgent attention (about which I have written ad nauseam) is the large number of schools, especially in rural areas, which still do not have access to basic facilities such as toilets and running water. Its effect on the pass rate of the rural provinces is clearly visible in the table above. The absence of teachers and the violence which has affected South African schools for some time now, including the gang violence on the Cape Flats, remain a growing problem.

Maths and science

A worrying aspect of the matric results is the decreasing number of matrics who take maths and physical science, which I had already pointed out last year. These subjects are supposed to equip learners for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). It points to defective tuition. Learners are trained for the examination instead of being taught. More attention should be given to problem-solving.

Mother-tongue tuition

By now, everyone knows that a child learns better and excels in their mother tongue. But this privilege is reserved for those with Afrikaans and English as their language of tuition. It is these schools whose names shine on the merit list. It is these schools whose learners achieve top positions and it is these matrics who are at the front of the queue for bursaries. Ironically the results were announced on International Mother Tongue Day, and to be fair, the minister made a special effort to speak in her mother tongue.

We need more of this.


Poverty still plays a role in the results: this is testified to by the fact that the top seven districts were all in or around the big cities. They are: Tshwane South, the top district, followed by Johannesburg West, Gauteng North, Johannesburg North and Sedibeng East, also in Gauteng. They are followed by the Metropole North in Cape Town and Ekurhuleni South. This is not the first time that the six top districts are all in Gauteng. And then we have the three districts in the Free State. 

Positive aspects

There are a number of positive aspects which come to the fore in the results and let us give the department and the minister credit where it is due. In many of the poorer neighbourhoods, a welcome positive change is visible: 275,615 matrics from so-called non-fee schools passed with bachelor’s passes. This gives them access to universities and other tertiary institutions. It is refreshing to note that more and more young people are rising above their circumstances.

Something that is often criticised is the 70,560 Grade 11 learners who were promoted to matric. Nearly 24,000 of them seized this opportunity and passed, 1,065 with distinctions.

Another feather in the cap of the education department is that they also offered citizens in prisons the opportunity to increase their living standards by sitting for the examination. Out of 133 candidates, 110 (83%) passed, of whom 71 got exemptions.

Disabled learners also made their mark, with a total of 2,161 matrics with special education needs lining up for the exam, of which 2,058 (95%) passed. They achieved more than 900 distinctions and 563 exemptions. This was also the second time only that the examination included sign language, technical science and civil technology.

Despite the lower pass rate, it is gratifying to see that the number of distinctions and university exemptions has risen. In this regard, the council for quality assurance (Umalusi) did the right thing by insisting that the exam paper not be “adjusted”. This ensured that the integrity of the results of the matrics who excelled was protected. It would be unfair to link the stigma of “an easy exam” to the certificate of those who worked hard in difficult circumstances.

Lessons learnt

In conclusion, we must ask the question of whether the factors which impacted negatively on the matric results, and were revealed by the pandemic, have been addressed. Have any lessons from 2020 been learnt to limit that impact to the minimum? I list just three aspects:

Lesson 1: Covid-19 is part of the new normal. Wearing masks and sanitising hands are still going to be with us for a long time and schools must adapt to this. Masks and sanitisers should be part of every school’s budget in future.

Lesson 2: Online classes are here to stay. Even if it is a modest beginning (for instance through WhatsApp networks), schools will have to start using technology.

Lesson 3: The government cannot do everything for us. There is just not enough money any more (owing to reasons known to us all) and school communities will have to act accordingly. We must do more things for ourselves. Schools will have to enter into partnerships with the businesses in their areas. It is time that they give back to the communities that keep their shops open.

A calling

To summarise: the pass rate of 76.2% is still an excellent achievement and every successful matriculant in the class of 2020 deserves praise. Not only did you pass an exam in difficult circumstances; you also proved that not even a pandemic can get you down. I congratulate you all. It is well deserved.

I have said it before, and today I repeat it with confidence: the success of the 2020 matrics was made possible because most teachers still see their task as a calling. Thanks to their hard work and that of their colleagues in the district offices, South Africa can boast a matric pass rate of which the whole country can be proud.

They are the real heroes who deserve our thanks and appreciation. 

  • Prof Michael le Cordeur is head of Stellenbosch University’s Department of Curriculum Studies and ambassador of the Rapport Bursary Fund.
  • OPINION: Michael le Cordeur