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Class of 2021 maths results improve, science slumps

Read time 3min 50sec

The 2021 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination results show a mixed bag for the two subjects considered to be the key building blocks for entry into the ICT sector.

The mathematics pass rate increased from 65.8% in 2020, to 69% in 2021. Conversely, the science results show an ever-so-slight dip from 75.5% in 2020 to 74.7% in 2021, according to the 2021 National Senior Certificate Results.

Based on the report, 196 968 full-time learners wrote the maths paper last year and 135 915 (69%) of those learners passed the subject. This is a slight improvement from the 114 758 (65.8%) learners that passed in 2020.

Mathematics literacy was written by 259 143 learners in 2021, resulting in 149 177 (57.6%) learners passing. The 2021 result is a slight improvement compared to 2020, when the pass rate was 125 526 (53.8%).

Out of the learners that wrote physical science in 2021,79 093 – or 74.7% − passed. The year before (2020), 70 014 (75.5%) ended up passing the subject.

Announcing the results last night, basic education minister Angie Motshekga said the class of 2021 was the largest cohort to write the matric exams, with the overall pass rate standing at 76.4%, up 0.2% from the pass rate achieved in 2020.

In total, 897 163 matrics wrote the 2021 NSC exams, an increase of 23.6% from 2020.

Says Motshekga: “It is important to remind the nation that for the past 10 years, the NSC pass rates have consistently been going up from 60% in 2009, to above 70% in recent years. The Class of 2021 must be commended for maintaining this trend, despite the astronomical challenges they faced.”

Minister in the Department of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga.
Minister in the Department of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga.

There has been mixed reaction to the results, with commentators unsure whether the pass rate is a true reflection of the level of knowledge and understanding the learners have.

Moira de Roche, chairperson of the International Federation for Information Processing IP3and a director on the Global Industry Council, says she’s sceptical about the pass rates in maths.

“Experience has shown that learners who get over 80% in maths struggle when they get to university. I must wonder if the marks are bumped up, or if the exams are not up to standard.

“Maths is all about the teaching, and it is a pity that good teachers are not asked to teach online to learners out of their school. Science is all about the equipment and experiments, and perhaps poorer schools do not have sufficient equipment to do experiments, which help learners conceptualise the theory.”

Komala Pillay, CEO of non-profit organisation Symphonia for South Africa, says it’s encouraging to see the overall improvement in the matric results, noting it’s a testimony to the hard work put in by educators, learners and parents, and it should be recognised and celebrated.

However, Pillay warns this should not delude people into thinking all is well in the education system. “The reality of COVID has meant primary school learners in under-resourced communities have lost 70% – 100% of learning in a year (NIDS-CRAM survey). This lost time in young, developing children will have a significant impact on learning over the rest of their school careers.

“If you add to this picture the impact of COVID on school drop-out rates (the NIDS-CRAM survey suggests a tripling of the school drop-out due to COVID), then it is clear that significant interventions are required to prevent a ‘lost-generation’ of youngsters who [are] not sufficiently skilled to have productive adult lives.”

Professor Elizabeth Henning, South African NRF research chair at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus, comments that preparation for high pass rates in these key subjects must start at the foundation stage.

Henning believes matric begins in grade one, and she questions how one can expect learners to do well in science and maths if they don’t have a strong foundation in the early years.

“The foundation in grades one, two, three and four is very important,” she says. “We tend to focus so much on the outcome by the end of the 12th grade that we forget the investment has to be made more in the early years.

“If you want to make an investment with young children, you would obviously do it through their schools and their teachers. Work the early grades and teachers, and give them [teachers] in-person support.”

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