Matric maths and science numbers remain dismally low

Only a small portion of South Africa’s 2021 matrics took mathematics and physical sciences, and far fewer passed with over 60%.

By Gemma Gatticchi
Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Photo: Antoine Dautry via Unsplash

Maths and physical science are not popular subjects in South Africa’s high schools. For example, only one in three grade 12s wrote maths and one in four wrote science in the 2021 National Senior Certificate Exams.

Somewhere between grade 8 in 2017, when there were just over 970,000 students enrolled, and grade 12 in 2021, a large portion of children gave up on maths and science, so that by grade 12 only 259,000 wrote maths and 136,000 wrote physical science.

Year Grade 8 Students Grade 12 Students Wrote Maths Passed Maths Passed Maths with +60%
2015-2019 931,766 640,714 222,034 121,179 23,796
2016-2020 952,628 628,190 233,315 125,526 30,882
2017-2021 971,367 750,478 259,143 149,177 34,451


In South Africa, maths is a compulsory subject, but learners can choose to do mathematical literacy, a practical alternative to pure maths. However, maths literacy is not accepted for most science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees.

In 2021, 750,478 learners enrolled in matric, but only 35% of them wrote the final maths exam; 20% of the grade 12s passed, but only 5% passed with 60% or more. That means 5 out of every 100 matrics got a good enough maths mark to do a bachelor of science degree at university.

The Department of Basic Education increased the threshold for maths from 50% to 60% in 2020, according to the NSC 2021 Technical Report. The 60% mark is used by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, to assess the maths and science marks of learners in line with what is required to get into STEM degrees at university.

Physical science

Physics follows much the same pattern, except fewer learners opt for the subject because it is not compulsory. It is, however, required for many STEM degrees.

Out of the 2021 cohort of matrics who wrote the NSC physical science exam, 18% passed and 15% passed with over 60%.

Four out of every 100 grade 12s got 60% for physics.

Year Grade 8 Students Grade 12 Students Wrote Physics Passed Physics Passed Physics with +60%
2015-2019 931,766 640,714 164,478 124,237 32,572
2016-2020 952,628 628,190 174,310 114,758 26,641
2017-2021 971,367 750,478 196,968 135,915 30,398