Hope for ICT as 2023 matrics improve maths, science marks

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 19 Jan 2024
The NSC report shows the maths pass rate reached 63.5% in 2023, up from the previous year.
The NSC report shows the maths pass rate reached 63.5% in 2023, up from the previous year.

Education experts agree the mathematics and physical science passes recorded by the matric class of 2023 are encouraging signs for the ICT sector.

Mathematics and science are considered gateway subjects that provide learners with opportunities to access science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) / ICT sector career pathways.

South Africa’s ICT/STEM skills are in short supply, with supply not close to meeting demand.

The country’s underperformance in maths and science has been cited as an area of concern over several years, especially as passes in these subjects are critical building blocks for skills needed for ICT and STEM professions.

The 2023 matric class’s maths pass rate increased from 55% in 2022 to 63.5% in 2023, as noted in the 2023 National Senior Certificate (NSC) Exam Results Technical Report. Since 2020, there has been gradual uptick in the overall maths pass rate, from 53.8% back then to the current figure of 63.5%.

In the case of the science, the results show an ever-so-slight increase from 74.6% in 2022, to 76.2% in 2023, states the report.

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga yesterday announced the national results for the class of 2023, revealing the highest pass rate (82.9%) since the dawn of democracy. The national pass rate in 2022 was 80.1%.

More than 890 000 full-time and part-time candidates sat for the matric exams administered by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) at the end of last year.

At the release of the 2023 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination results on Thursday, said 572 983 candidates passed the 2023 NSC exams.

“The Class of 2023, despite the odds, had a number of success stories. The overall pass rate increased by 2.8% compared to 2022, 4 080 more candidates have obtained admission to Bachelor studies, 546 more schools obtained an overall pass rate above 80% and 501 of these schools are from quintiles 1, 2 and 3.

“One of the most significant improvements is the increase of mathematics pass percentage from 55% in 2022 to 63.5% in 2023.”

Department of Basic Education minister, Angie Motshekga. [Photograph by DBE]
Department of Basic Education minister, Angie Motshekga. [Photograph by DBE]

Going up

Professor Sam Ramaila, associate professor: head of science education unit, science and technology education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), says improvement in both the maths and science pass rates is a positive development, and reflects commendable efforts by learners, teachers, and educational authorities.

“The increase in the number of candidates scoring 60% or more in mathematics from 2022 to 2023 reflects a positive trend in academic performance. The increase in the number of candidates with 60% or more in physical sciences, though modest, indicates a positive trend in academic achievement. However, concerted efforts are needed to boost the count of candidates achieving 60% or higher in mathematics and physical sciences as gateway subjects.”

Kathija Yassim, associate professor: education leadership and management at UJ, adds: “The improvement in the maths and science pass rates is to be celebrated as these are gateway subjects that provide learners with opportunities to access STEM career pathways.

“The cycle of poor performance in the past had constrained South Africa’s human capital in vital careers but also in research and innovation; hence this bodes well for the country as we try to develop skills that will enable us to meet the needs of the 21st century.

“It is, therefore, probable that the percentage of science, engineering, and technology (SET) enrolment in SA HEIs [higher education institutions] will increase in 2024 after being stagnant (at around 30%) over the last five years. This is important because SET human capital capacity is critical to spearhead the country’s research and innovation agenda to stimulate industrial competitiveness, economic growth, and the wellbeing of citizens.”

The Institute of ICT Professionals South Africa president and board chairperson, Senele Goba, agrees it’s very encouraging to see the steady improvement in the pass rate for maths and science.

“It gives great hope for the pursuit of ICT careers. It is certainly positive for the ICT sector because it means more of matriculants have a viable option to participate in the ICT sector, due to their satisfactory maths and science results.

“Having said this, IT as a subject remains endangered (we await the data on this subject) and has to receive the necessary focus and investment from public, private and non-governmental sectors.

“In the 2023 results, we have seen the biggest year-on-year improvement in maths. It has hovered around the mid 50's from 2020 to 2022, but broke well into the 60's this year. This is something to be proud of.”

ICT sector gains

According to Ramaila, the enhanced success rates in maths and science are encouraging for the ICT sector, as both subjects serve as the cornerstone for careers in technology and innovation.

“Proficiency in mathematics is particularly crucial for various aspects of ICT, such as programming, algorithm development, and problem-solving. Similarly, physical science lays the groundwork for understanding fundamental principles in areas like electronics and telecommunications. The higher pass rates indicate a growing pool of learners with the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue careers in the rapidly evolving field of ICT.”

For Yassim, increased access to careers in ICT due to success in these gateway subjects bodes well as technology is the biggest disruptor currently.

“The need for technology-driven solutions globally provides South African learners the opportunity to be global trendsetters and innovators. With AI access (like ChatGPT) available to the public, it means South African learners can participate both locally and globally. Access to technology tools in education and in other spheres of life make access to quality education and a quality life possible; therefore, these subjects provide wider access and greater participation possibilities.

“Trends observed in ICT for education has shown that the demand for expertise in ICT fields will continue to increase in the future making this a sustainable career option for learners. In addition, the sustainability demands in South Africa (towards achieving the SDG’s) make careers in ICT vital for the country, hence increased participation could improve not just the unemployment rate but also enable entrepreneurship and job creation options through innovation.”

Tread carefully

WeThinkCode CEO Nyari Samushonga points out that while the growing pass rate percentage is something to be celebrated, the proportion of students writing matric maths is going down.

“At this point, 38% of the students that take matric final exams actually include maths as one of the subjects that they take. We start to have a growing percentage of a declining population.

“The percentage goes up, but where we’ve previously had 80%, 70%, 60%, 50% and 40% of students taking matric, the number of people taking matric maths is reducing – I think this is a problem.

“Having people take maths is valuable to software and sciences because maths is one of the obvious places where you learn logic. The pass rate going up helps, but I think the challenge is that not more people are doing it, so the pass rate is not revealing the fact that we’re directing more and more young people to do maths literacy – this is where the tragedy is.

“It’s always good for more people to do maths and science. I’m a big believer in how that empowers your logical and analytical thinking – just the general awareness of what is going on around you.”

For instance, if there wasn’t a decline in numbers signing up for maths – the numbers stayed flat and the pass rate was going up – are the pathways growing in line with those numbers, Samushonga asks,

“It’s well and good to get matric results out, but then what? When you get a higher maths matric result…you have a higher likelihood of being good at something. We’re not saying we’ve made more seats available in university, we’ve made TVET colleges more effective and we’ve held private colleges accountable.

“It’s good to have those percentages go up, it’s good that the Department of Basic Education is interested in it, but the big question is what is the lock-in with higher education. Are these youngsters able to pathway into something that gives them the next level of training?”