Strait is the gate the matric conundrum

Charles Simkins looks at the extensive structure of the NSC system and published information on its outcomes

Strait is the gate the matric conundrum

12 January 2017

This brief is the first in a series which will discuss the circumstances in which young people live.  Some briefs will be supported by technical reports which set out additional detailed information for those interested in it.

The first brief will consider the objectives and the extensive structure of the National Senior Certificate system.  The second will deal with published information on National Senior Certificate outcomes.

1. The policy framework

Two Department of Basic Education policies shape enrolments in Grades 10, 11 and 12, and the National Senior Certificate:

- The norm that learners should spend a maximum of four years in Grades 10, 11 and 12.  This implies a maximum of one repeated grade.

-  As many learners as possible should pass the National Senior Certificate.

2. Promotion, repetition and progression

A decision about every learner in Grades 10 and 11 is taken at the end of the year.  In order to be promoted, a learner has to pass three subjects (at least one of which is an official language at the home language level) with at least 40%, and a further three at the 30% level. A learner who fails to meet the promotion requirement for the first time repeats the grade. Progression is an option once a learner has repeated once. Progression requires 30% in the language of teaching and learning and in three other subjects, as well as regular school attendance. What happens to a learner who has repeated once and fails to meet the requirements for progression is not clear. Grade 12 may be repeated by learners who fail the National Senior Certificate on the first attempt.

There are eight possible ways in which a learner can complete Grades 10, 11 and 12 in a maximum of four years. [1] Three of them entail progression into Grade 12.

3. The forms and requirements of the National Senior Certificate

The National Senior Certificate has a standard form and two variants. In the standard form, learners must offer seven subjects: two languages (at least one of which must be an official language at home language level), mathematics or mathematical literacy, life orientation, and three other subjects. Combination rules apply. The requirement for a pass is a mark of at least 40% in three subjects, one of which must be a home language and a mark of at least 30% in three other subjects.  

The National Senior Certificate may be offered on a full time or a part time basis. To enrol on a full time basis, a learner must have been in Grade 12 in the year in question. Learners who have been promoted to Grade 12 or are repeating it must offer all subjects in the November examination. Candidates who fail the November examination are granted permission to write supplementary examinations in one or two subjects in March of the following year. Learners who have been progressed to Grade 12 may offer all subjects in the November examination, or split the subjects between the November examination and the examinations held in June.

Part-time candidates for the National Senior Certificate do not attend school. They may write one or more subjects each November until they have met the National Senior Certificate requirements.

Full time and part time candidates are required to submit School Based Assessments (SBA) for Grade 12.  25% of the final mark for a subject is determined by the SBA and 75% by the examination, except in the case of Life Orientation where the final mark is entirely determined by the SBA. SBAs have a shelf life of three years.

The first variant is the Endorsed National Senior Certificate. This is available only to learners who have one or more specified learning difficulties.  Learners must offer five subjects: an official language at the home or first additional language level, mathematics or mathematical literacy, life orientation and two other subjects.  The requirement for a pass is a mark of at least 30% in each subject. Very few learners – 154 in 2015 and 125 in 2016 – pass the Endorsed National Senior Certificate.

The second variant is the Amended Senior Certificate (ASC). This is intended for learners who are 21 or older. To qualify for entrance, a learner must have completed Grade 9, or have an incomplete old Senior Certificate, or have an incomplete National Senior Certificate with expired SBAs. A candidate must offer six subjects (no Life Orientation is required).  The marks are determined entirely by the examination. In order to pass, a candidate must pass three subjects with at least 40%, one of which must be an official home language, two subjects with at least 30%, one of which must be an official home or first additional language, and one subject with at least 20%.  ASC candidates write in June.

4. Support

In addition to ordinary school tuition, assistance is offered to categories of candidates as follows:

Information and Communications Technology. This takes the form of TV and radio broadcasts and internet programmes, available to all candidates.

Supplementary examinations. This takes the form of 12 hours of instruction in February/March, available to candidates for supplementary examination.

Progressed learners during Grade 12. Autumn and Winter Schools are offered to these learners, as well as additional in-school instruction.

Progressed learners who elect to take some of their examinations in June and Amended Senior Certificate learners. 30 hours of face to face instruction between April and June are offered to these learners.

Part-time candidates. 30 hours of face to face instruction in August and September are offered to these learners.

All these interventions are offered free of charge.

5. Reporting of outcomes

There are seven ways in which learners can complete a National Senior Certificate.  Only three of them are reported on in the National Senior Certificate Examination Report.[2The reported awards are:

- Full time non-progressed passes in the November examination among candidates who have not repeated Grade 12.

- Full-time non-progressed passes in the November examination among candidates who have repeated Grade 12.

- Full-time passes among progressed candidates who have elected to write all their subjects in November.

Completions of the National Senior Certificate are not reported for:

- Supplementary examination candidates.

- Progressed candidates electing to write some of their subjects in June.

- Part-time candidates.  There is information on how many pass selected subjects, but no information on how many complete the National Senior Certificate

- Amended Senior Certificate candidates.

These omissions could be rectified in the National Certificate Examination Report by including sections on the outcomes of the February and June examinations.

Brief 2

Youth Brief 1 described the structure and objectives of the National Senior Certificate system.  This companion brief discusses published National Senior Certificate outcomes.

1. The long view

Statistics on enrolment in Grade 12 and Senior Certificate passes go back to 1970. In that year, there were 46 143 learners in Grade 12 and 42 696 Senior Certificate passes. Figure 1 sets out the ratio of (National) Senior Certificate passes to Grade 12 enrolments and the (National) Senior Certificate pass rate (candidates who passed divided by candidates who completed the examination), from 1970 to 2014.

Sources:  South African Statistics, various years
Department of (Basic) Education, Education Statistics, 2000-14 
Note:  Since 2000, the average gap between NSC passes/Grade 12 enrolments and the pass rate   has been just over 5%. This is because some Grade 12 learners do not enrol for the NSC and   some of those who do enrol do not complete the examination

Figure 1 shows that the pass rate has not been constant. It was above 90% up to 1976, and then began a long decline, reaching a low of 50% in 1999. Thereafter it rose again and it has been above 70% since 2011.

One reason for the decline was the rapid increase in Grade 12 enrolments. These were below 100 000 up to 1979. By 1993, enrolments stood at just over a half a million, an average growth annual rate of 13.4%, sustained for fourteen years. Quality was bound to take a hit. Between 1993 and 2014, Grade 12 enrolments have fluctuated between 475 000 and 625 000.  

2. The hazardous route from Grade 9 to Grade 12

The trendless fluctuation in the number of Grade 12 enrolments is the almost static size of the 15-19 age group between 2005 and 2015, though the average rate of growth in the preceding decade was 1.7% per annum[1]. Coupled with that has been a hazardous route from Grade 9 to Grade 12. The promotion, repeat and drop-out rates in 2011-2012 are set out in Table 1.

Table 1 - Promotion, Repeater and Drop-out rates, 2011-2012


Grade 9

Grade 10

Grade 11

Grade 12





















Source:  Department of Basic Education, presentation to Parliament’s Basic Education Committee, 15 March 2016

This pattern remained roughly constant for the twenty years before 2014, and it has led to rapidly diminishing enrolment in Grades 11 and 12, relative to enrolment in Grade 10[2].  

The reason for this high attrition can be found in the results of the Annual National Assessments (ANA) of Grade 9 learners. The 2014 ANA found that 33% of learners were at a level below 40% in their home language and that 90% of learners were at a level of below 30% in mathematics. The cognitive demand of starting to prepare for the National Senior Certificate is just too great for many learners to cope.  

It is frustration with this state of affairs which has led to the progression policy described in Youth Brief 1. The idea is that progressed learners should be given special assistance, particularly in Grade 12, so that they can overcome learning deficits, in part in respect of material covered up to Grade 9.

3. The National Senior Certificate since 2008[3

The key features of developments since 2008 have been:

NSC passes have risen from 333 604 in 2008 to 442 672 in 2016. There was a slight drop between 2015 (455 825) and 2016. This increase has been mostly a result of the increase in the pass rate, from 62.5% in 2008 to 72.5% in 2016.

Progressed learners contributed 22 060 passes to the total in the November 2015 and  29 384 in November 2016 examination. The pass rate among progressed learners in the November 2016 examination was 43.5%. More passes among the 2016 group can be expected in June 2017.

School enrolment estimates by grade in 2016 have not yet been published. However, it can be estimated that the introduction of the progression policy has increased enrolments in Grade 12 from 571 819 in 2014 to about 700 000 in 2016.

The number of part-time students who wrote one or more subjects in November increased from 81 552 in 2012 to 107 793 in 2016. The number qualifying for the National Senior Certificate each year is not published, but it is likely to be low.

122 333 candidates failed in November 2014. Of these, 112 331 (92%) qualified for the supplementary examination in March 2015.  90 309 enrolled for the supplementary and 66 304 wrote it. The number of candidates who passed the NSC in March 2015 has not been published.

In both 2015 and 2016, there was a gap of 30% between the pass rates in Quintile 1 schools (schools in the poorest areas) and Quintile 5 schools. Since the pass rate in Quintile 5 schools was 92.1% in 2016, further increases in the overall pass rate will depend on improving the pass rate in lower quintile schools.  

4. Conclusion

The Department of Basic Education has developed a system which gives learners as many chances as possible for passing the National Senior Certificate.  Publication of a full account of passes achieved in every year in the February, June and November examinations would help assessment of the effectiveness of the components of the system.  Since the size of the 15-19 age group is now more or less constant in successive years, the quality of regular teaching in schools and additional support outside the regular programme will determine the changes in the number of passes.

Charles Simkins, Head of Research, HSF, 12 January 2017


Brief 1

[1] These are set out in Table 1 of Youth Technical Report 1

[2] Up to 2015, this report was titled The National Senior Certificate Technical Report

Brief 2

[1] Estimates are based on the 2015 revision of the United Nations World Population Prospects

[2] Education Statistics 2014 estimated the number of learners in Grade 10 at 1 139 872, in Grade 11 at 897 342, and in Grade 12 at 571 819

[3] The published statistical information on the National Senior Certificate is set out in Tables 1, 3 and 4 of the National Youth Technical Report 1.  It is subject to the limitations described in National Youth Brief 1.