Preparations & Readiness for 2020 NSC Examination: DBE and Umalusi briefing; with Deputy Minister

Basic Education

27 October 2020
Chairperson: Ms B Mbinqo-Gigaba (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, (National Assembly) 27 Oct 2020

In a virtual meeting, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi) briefed the Committee on the preparedness of grade 12 learners and the system’s readiness for the upcoming National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations. The examination period was expected to commence from 5 November to 15 December 2020.

The Deputy Minister expressed appreciation for the admirable efforts of the 2020 matriculant learners and their teachers during the disruptions to schooling caused by the COVID-19 regulations.

The DBE stated that over one million candidates were registered to participate in the NSC November 2020 examinations due to the June exams being cancelled for full-time and part-time candidates during COVID-19. Despite these unusual circumstances, the DBE felt confident in its learner and exam preparedness. The Department had completed the curriculum, had re-weighted the assessments, and had set up information and communication technology (ICT) support for learners.

Working with Umalusi, the DBE had identified all risks which would be closely moderated to ensure the credibility and integrity of the examinations was not compromised. Umalusi had conducted audits and received reports from the DBE and the Provincial Education Departments (PEDs) regarding the state of readiness. Umalusi had determined that the standard of acceptable readiness was met in order to conduct credible examinations.

The Committee expressed its concerns regarding the decreasing number of students enrolled in mathematics and physical sciences, the inclusion of immigrant students without documentation, the printing capacity of provinces, and fraudulent NSC accreditation.

The DBE and Umalusi reassured the Committee that these concerns had been, or were in the process of being, monitored and addressed in order to provide the 2020 class with sufficient support to ensure a safe and conducive examination environment.

Meeting report

Deputy Minister’s remarks

Dr Reginah Mhaule, Deputy Minister of Basic Education, thanked the Chairperson for inviting the Department and Umalusi to brief the Committee on the readiness for final examinations in 2020. She defined readiness as consisting of two intertwined elements -- sufficient preparedness of learners to sit for their examinations, and preparation to administer the exams. COVID-19 had caused students to miss many days of schooling, but teachers and learners had been committed to working through these challenges during exam preparation. She added that a million candidates had registered to write their matric exams this year, adding to the many challenges the Department faced.

DBE briefing on 2020 NSC readiness

Dr Mamiki Maboya, Deputy Director-General (DDG): Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring, DBE, introduced the presentation on the state of preparedness of learners, and the exam system for 2020 NSC examinations.

Student preparedness

Ms Cheryl Weston, Director: Further Education and Training, presented on the necessary support provided by the DBE during learner preparation. She said the COVID-19 pandemic had placed limitations on learner preparation, including intensified systematic inequalities, loss of teaching time, cancellation of June examinations, shortening of the June vacation and the preparatory exam period. These challenges had been met with extraordinary interventions by the DBE, such as supplementary material, additional academic classes and teacher content training, to ensure learners would succeed.

Ms Weston said the DBE had four essential organisational themes that were used to direct the work they did. The first focused on gathering and assessing data to firm up plans. The second theme was to assess the effect of initiatives by the DBE to maximise learning outcomes. The third theme was measuring the state of preparation for the exams at the end of the year. The fourth theme was the administration of examinations, and preparation for the following year.

The Department focused on seven areas of intervention, subject to minor adjustments in the provinces. Focus areas included:

  • Information and communication technology (ICT) support and utilisation;
  • Additional learning and teaching support material (LTSM) provisioned;
  • Extra tuition based on/off school campuses in the morning, afternoons or on weekends;
  • Monitoring curriculum coverage and revision;
  • Teacher development initiatives;
  • Peer-led study groups;
  • Psycho-social support to students affected by the pandemic.

She said that the grade 12 annual teaching plans (ATPs) were covered entirely with the class of 2020, much like the classes prior to 2020 were exposed to, despite the difficult circumstances. The DBE had compensated for compromised time by reducing school-based assessments tasks, practical assessment tasks (PATs) and the cancellation of the June exams, according to the pandemic protocols and restrictions. The DBE had heightened ICT support to learners through distributing digital content, zero-rated websites, virtual classrooms and TV and radio broadcasting. ICT would be incorporated into learning moving forward, to provide a blended approach to learner support. The class of 2020 would still be subjected to the same high quality examination that the previous matriculants had been subjected to.

She commended the learners, teachers and school management team (SMT) members for their resilience in the goal of providing optimum support to the 2020 Class.

Exam system readiness

Dr Rufus Poliah, Chief Director: National Assessment and Public Examinations, DBE, said that the DBE must ensure that learners would write the examinations under the most conducive conditions, despite the disadvantageous climate. The Department had gone the extra mile to ensure that the examinations would be administered under fair and conducive conditions. The DBE worked in conjunction with Umalusi throughout every step of the examination cycle to ensure processes complied with their standards, before issuing NSC documentation to matriculants.

Scope and size 2020 combined exam

Dr Poliah expanded on the Deputy Minister’s comment regarding 1 058 699 registered 2020 matriculants, saying that the June and November examinations would be combined, consisting of the five different cohorts of candidates writing. The DBE had compared enrolment figures for 2019 and 2020, and had discovered that the number of student who dropped out had not increased dramatically, with the exception of the Limpopo province. He expressed concern over declining trends in NSC subject enrolment, specifically related to mathematics and physical sciences. He said this would be remedied by programmes implemented later by the Department.

Registration of candidates and centres

He said that the DBE was on track with the registration of candidates and centres with the assistance of early planning to manage the registration of five different cohorts on two different systems. There had been close monitoring from the DBE during the online registration and upload of data from the South African School Management System (SASAM) by provincial Education Departments (PEDs). This system subjected errors to multiple layers of verification processes. Every exam centre had been audited to ensure they complied with COVID-19 regulations. Where a school had not been accredited by Umalusi, the Department would take over through a concession arrangement. No independent centre that was not accredited may administer the exam.

Question papers

The November 2020 question papers had been set and approved by Umalusi, and had been distributed to PEDs from 7 September.

The Department would have printed and packed question papers a week prior to their being transferred to the storage point, where they would stay for five days, subject to a physical audit. These measures would help prevent the chances of a question paper being leaked. The DBE had audited Western Cape schools that would individually function as a storage point under a different distribution model.


Dr Poliah said that all PEDs had successfully completed virtual invigilator training programmes to manage the administration of exam centres. The preparatory exam had served as a good indicator of no problems emanating from exam centres. The Department had audited public, independent and designated centres and catagorised them according to their respective risk profiles. High risk centres would have a resident monitor based at the centre for the duration of the exam. Medium risk centres would have roving monitors to manage a cluster of centres, while low risk centres were subjected to normal monitoring protocols. Some provinces had a shortage of invigilators, monitors and writing venues, but PEDs had appointed the relevant personnel and centres for these roles.


All aspects would moderated on a national and provincial sample basis subject to the capacity of the DBE.

Marking and monitors

The DBE had extended the period of marker selection, and had a reserve of markers as a contingency for any further unforeseen circumstances. The Department would audit every province to ensure the necessary information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure to allow for virtual meetings with markers.

Monitors would be reporting on irregularities in exam centres, as well as indicating COVID-19 cases to the DBE.

Final examination marks would be captured from 8 to 25 January 2021.

Dr Poliah said that these extraordinary examination circumstances had been met by extraordinary measures put in place by the Department. All identified risks would be moderated closely to ensure the credibility and integrity of the examinations was not compromised.

Umalusi on state of readiness to manage NSC examinations

Prof John Volmink, Chairperson: Umalusi, spoke about the work of Umalusi in relation to the DBE state of readiness to conduct, administer and manage the combined June and 2020 NSC examinations.
The academic year in South Africa had been severely compromised due to the national lockdown, and various regulations associated with COVID-19. Umalusi had to put measures in place to fulfil its mandate of quality assurance while observing stringent health and safety measures to be complied with under the state of disaster. He commended the DBE for making the necessary preparations to ensure readiness for the 2020 NSC exams under these difficult circumstances.
Ms Zodwa Modimakwane, Executive Manager: Quality Assurance and Monitoring, Umalusi, said the Council was mandated to ensure a state of readiness that identified any issues that may jeopardise the integrity of the assessment processes and outcomes. It adopted a risk management-based approach to evaluate the preparedness levels of assessment bodies for NSC examinations. This method allowed for timeous identification of potential risks, and provided the assessment bodies with advice to remedy these risks accordingly. This was done through self-evaluation reports submitted to each PED by assessment bodies, which were followed up by online audits by Umalusi.
Ms Mary-Louise Madalane, Senior Manager: Evaluation and Accreditation, Umalusi, said that the 2020 registration of candidates had been finalised in all nine PEDs. This included candidates who did not meet the criteria for immigrant status under a process of registration conducted by PEDs, which ensured that no student got left behind. Audits had been conducted of registered examination centres to make sure that centres complied with strict COVID-19 protocols. All centres hosting November 2020 examinations were correctly registered and non-accredited centres had been given a concession by Umalusi to write examinations.
Umalusi and the DBE had successfully managed to moderate and approve the question papers for the 2020 November examinations, with provision made for their printing. Umalusi and the DBE were satisfied with the printing, packaging and distribution of exam question papers and supplementary materials.

PEDs had appointed an increased number of invigilators due to the large number of registered candidates, while having a 20% reserve of invigilation personnel for November 2020. Markers and monitors for the exams had been appointed and were undergoing preparation. PEDs had issued markers with either a standard marking plan or additional marking days to ensure their preparedness.  Based on DBE and Umalusi observation through audits and the reports on the state of readiness, Umalusi was satisfied that the DBE, through the nine PEDs, was ready to conduct the merged June and November 2020 examinations.


Ms N Mashabela (EFF) was concerned about the registration of immigrant candidates from Gauteng province whose immigration documentation would have expired by the time of examinations. She asked what measures had been put in place to assist in dealing with the challenges of the affected candidates.

Ms N Tarabella-Marchesi (DA) expressed concern about the declining numbers of enrolment in subjects such as mathematics and physical sciences recorded yearly. This was contrary to the goal of Department to get South African children and citizens to participate in the 4th industrial revolution (4IR) in the future. She acknowledged the many interventions that had been put in place to counter the decline in enrolment for these subjects. Were there adequate numbers of teachers available per subject? If not, what was the DBE doing to compensate for this shortfall? A fear of failing in matric could serve as a deterrent for students enrolled in these subjects. This could have later repercussions on job and university opportunities available to them. She emphasised the need for the Department to assist in actively promoting mathematics and physical sciences, and to investigate the reasons for the drop-out rate.

She said the Deputy Minister had previously mentioned that COVID-19 policies would not be written into legislation. It was important for the Committee to have policies regarding a pandemic or natural disaster issues in the event of further hardships that may occur, such as potential limited access to a vaccine in 2021. The DBE needed to develop a strong assessment system, working in conjunction with Umalusi, which enabled students to progress to university. What was preventing the Department and Umalusi from creating assessments, other than matric examinations, that would qualify students to be accepted into universities? Would there be any flexibility in developing these qualifying criteria going forward?

Ms C King (DA) said that if the Committee were given access to the preliminary examination marks, it would have shown the preparedness of students and a possible indication of the expected pass rates. She appreciated the support provided by the DBE and Umalusi to students during the pandemic, but recognised the pressure placed on students due to the turbulent home and schooling environments. Had any adjustments been made to the weighting of school-based assessments (SBAs) and PATs to assist grade 12 learners due to annual teaching plans not being entirely covered? What had been the difference between the 2019 and 2020 enrolment rates for additional learner and teacher support materials (LTSM) learners? This would indicate the drop-out rates and what additional systems the LTSM learners in the system needed in order to perform better.

How many non-accredited centres would be used during the examinations? She said that Umalusi and the DBE must quantify the number of markers still required in each province on account of the shortage. This would ensure that subjects with large numbers of students, such as Afrikaans and English Home Language and business studies, had sufficient markers. Had the quintile one, two and three schools sufficiently covered most of the curriculum for grade 12 learners per district?

Mr S Ngcobo (IFP) acknowledged the steps taken, or yet to be taken, by the Department to assist learners during the examinations. How confident was Umalusi about the emotional readiness of learners for exams? The matric curriculum should assess the knowledge and skills acquired by the student through the content and additional materials provided by Umalusi. How would Umalusi test the accreditation of learners, considering this?

Mr E Siwela (ANC) asked whether “Mind the Gap” (MTG) study guides had been provided to all learners for each subject enrolled? He agreed that an indication of learner performance would have provided a gauge for the expected outcome of the 2020 final examinations. Would extending the marking period in certain provinces, such as Limpopo, affect release dates of exam results? What had the DBE, in conjunction with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), done to assist immigrant learners in getting identity documents (IDs) to allow them to enrol in universities after matric?  

Ms N Shabalala (ANC) commended the DBE and Umalusi for their presentations and efforts to improve the examination preparedness of students and schools in these difficult conditions.

Ms N Adoons (ANC) said that it would be difficult for the 2020 matriculants to surpass, or even maintain, the 80% pass rate achieved by the 2019 matric class. The Department was also faced with the challenge of supporting and advising the over one million matriculants writing exams this year, including students who were supposed to write in June. COVID-19 may cause students and educators to have anxieties about writing in centres. The government, the DBE and parents needed to be productive and support students as a team during this final push. Students should not feel judged for under-performing due to the current circumstances. She appreciated the work done by the Committee and the DBE up until this point.

The Chairperson expressed gratitude to Umalusi and the DBE for their efforts in allowing matriculants to write their NSC exams, especially the psycho-social support during this period. She said that learners needed to be encouraged to understand the importance of taking subjects like mathematics and accounting. It would be risky for the Department to print exam papers at a later stage, considering that not all provinces had the same access to high quality printers. She expressed great concern over fraudulent NSC certificates being printed and bought by citizens to obtain jobs for which they had not qualified.

The Western Cape learners planned to get exam scripts from schools directly, whereas other provinces were getting their scripts from districts. Why had the DBE adopted a different approach for the Western Cape? What were the criteria required when appointing markers and examiners? She asked what the current remuneration for these positions was.

Umalusi’s response

Prof Volmink addressed Ms Tarabella-Marchesi’s concerns about the quality of teaching, the quantity of teachers and the decline of students in mathematics and science. He said that in future, he did not foresee mathematics being a gatekeeper for opportunities. In the future of the fourth industrial revolution, subjects like coding would be required, for which a student would need to be enrolled only in mathematics literacy in order to be eligible. The three-stream model would provide alternative pathways for students not enrolled in ‘pure’ mathematics to pursue a career.

The mandate of Umalusi was to assure the quality of assessments at entrance and exit points, especially the grade 12 exit point. Umalusi discharged that legislative responsibility, as it had to do with the quality of education. The quality of education must be addressed in the classroom by competent teachers. He created a direct link between the quality of teaching and the quality of the teacher. The DBE should give consideration to the development of mathematics and physical science.

When there was a deviation in results gathered over five years, the necessary adjustments would become highlighted, including that of emotional support. He expressed satisfaction with the level of examination standards upheld by Umalusi and the Department, which was comparable to that of previous matric classes.

Ms Modimakwane responded to Ms Mashabela regarding immigrant candidates. The best interests of the immigrant candidate were always considered in examination processes. Immigrant candidates without study permits would be allowed to write examinations, and consequences would be dealt with thereafter.

On Umalusi concessions, centres that had not been accredited by Umalusi would not be allowed to conduct examinations. Concessions afforded the Department the administration of exams in the centre, or an alternative centre would be allocated for students to write examinations.

On the shortage of markers in Limpopo and the implications for the extension of the marking period, the Department had provided more time for markers in 2020. The additional marking days planned by Limpopo would not have an impact on the release of results and any other process that followed the marking process.

On fraudulent certificates, Umalusi was concerned with citizens buying falsified certificates, and had established a fraud and ethics hotline. The hotline allowed for anonymous calls to report issues of fraud. Umalusi was responsible for the verification of certificates and reporting misrepresented qualifications.

Department’s response

Dr Maboya responded to comments on the exam results, saying that it would have been useful for the Committee to see the preliminary exam results as an indication for expected final results. The Department was currently collecting data on the preliminary result data from provinces, which would become available by mid-November 2020.

On curriculum coverage, the Department had prioritised the class of 2020 throughout the disruptions which had compromised teaching time. It had tried to afford matriculants the maximum time to cover the curriculum by returning them to schools first, and devising rotational timetables that would not affect their teaching time. In June, a teacher and learner survey was conducted to determine how far schools were in completing the content of the curriculum. Provinces had aided her in one-on-one meetings to monitor spring classes and terms. These results indicated that most schools had covered the entire curriculum before commencing preliminary exams.

On Mind the Gap study guides, only selected subjects had study guides available to them. Provinces had assisted in distributing printed study guides to quintile one to three schools. Quintile four to five schools had made electronic copies of the guides available to students.

On the declining enrolment in mathematics, the three-stream model, including subjects like technical maths and science, may have contributed to the drop in pure maths and science rates. She agreed with Prof Volmink that the three-stream model would diversify the learning pathways accessible to students. The DBE had prioritised the availability of competent teachers to teach maths and science subjects.

Dr Poliah responded to Ms King about adjustments to the weighting of PAT assessments and orals. Adjustments were made only where issues of social distancing in PATS were concerned. Where components of PATS and orals were removed, the marks were increased to still reflect the same weighting.

On LTSM learners and marker shortages, exact numbers and details would be made available to the Committee after the DBE had received the finalised data from provinces.

On the release date of results, the Department had considered that the maximum amount of days required for popular subjects in larger provinces was 14 to16 days. However it had allocated a marking period of 18 days. This would allow results to be published on the planned release date.

He said a learner may register for examinations without an identity document (ID). However, the learner must produce their ID at some point to confirm that they were the candidate that had written the examination. The Department aimed to make IDs a compulsory part of the examination process, to reduce the fraud that may take place. The DBE was working with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to assist in schools attaining IDs. It was mostly part-time and adult learners that needed to be targeted when encouraging them to get their IDs.

Dr Poliah reassured the Chairperson that the DBE had put meticulous planning measures in place when considering the printing capacity of the provinces. The printing schedule was determined based on the printing machines and printing speeds available to each province. Printing durations specific to the provinces would ensure that the question paper would be on the desks of the learners in the quantity required.

The DBE, Umalusi and the PEDs had a verification service, where employers and the various education institutions could authenticate the certificates that were received. The DBE and Umalusi reported fraudulent certificates on a daily basis to employers as a safety feature.

He agreed that the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) decision to store question papers at the schools prevented the PEDs from having a uniform approach adopted among all provinces. The DBE conducted close monitoring and audits of the WCED schools as a storage point to ensure that they were in compliance with security protocols.

On the remuneration of markers, the compensation was currently R222 for a marker, R241 for a senior marker and R259 for deputy chief markers.

He emphasised that longer term curriculum and assessment plans needed to be put in place. Teachers had to be more involved in curriculum implementation and assessment. The Department had been working on formative, school-based assessment strategies to improve the assessment capacity of teachers.

Deputy Minister Response

Deputy Minister Mhaule said that the efforts of the DBE and Umalusi aimed to promote the best interests of the child. Learners without the required IDs were provided with examination numbers to write their exams. This created a problem for these matriculants, as they would not have access to universities or employment. Learners whose parents were legally citizens of the country were being assisted with documentation through the DBE and the DHA. Learners with illegal immigrant parents did not have a system through the DHA to receive the same assistance.

The Chairperson thanked the Deputy Minister, the DBE and Committee Members for their responses and wished them all the best for the upcoming examination period. The Committee was confident in the preparedness of the Department and Umalusi through these difficult circumstances.

Adoption of Committee minutes

The Committee considered and adopted the minutes of 23 October 2020.

The meeting was adjourned.


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