2023 Examinations-Readiness: DBE & Umalusi briefing; with Minister and Deputy Minister

Basic Education

19 September 2023
Chairperson: Ms B Mbinqo-Gigaba (ANC)
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Meeting Summary


The Portfolio Committee convened on a virtual platform to receive an updated status report from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and Umalusi on learners' examination readiness in 2023. The DBE acknowledged the examination irregularities within the past year and the errors in some of the past examinations, but assured the Committee of their resolve to put security measures in place to prevent this from recurring.

The Committee wanted to know exactly how the learners were being supported for the upcoming examinations, including the provision of assistive educational devices, such as Braille. They also expressed concerns for the Class of 2023, which had had to study during the global pandemic and had endured many challenges as a result. They wanted to be assured that these learners were fully prepared and fully supported for the upcoming examinations.

Members asked if a sustainable development plan was in place for markers to ensure there was a pool of markers so that training did not have to take place each year. What had the Department done to prevent errors in the examination papers, such as had occurred in the mathematics paper last year? What arrangement did the DBE have with higher education institutions to increase awareness of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding opportunities and application processes?

A Member criticised the tendency of provinces to place learners into camps to prepare them for final examinations, suggesting that this could lead to schools being lazy and relying solely on the camps.

The DBE was also asked to express its view on replacing examinations with school-based assessments.

The DBE confirmed that they had hard line measures in place for the teachers and invigilators to ensure that they preserved the integrity of the examination process.

Meeting report

Opening comments

The Chairperson began by apologising for the amended meeting agenda due to a delay in printing the [Bela] Bill. This meeting was initially scheduled for the following week, but there would still be a meeting the following week to finalise the Bill. The agenda was subsequently adopted.

Ms Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education, gave an overview of the presentation. She said it was the Department’s most important activity and as such, they were looking forward to briefing the Committee, and hearing their questions and comments.

Mr Mathanzima Mweli, Director-General (DG), Department of Basic Education (DBE), delegated certain sections of the very long presentation to be covered by their respective speakers. Thereafter, the DBE and Umalusi proceeded to present the exam system readiness.

Matric exam readiness

The DBE had roped in the State Security Agency (SSA) to conduct an audit of the sites where matric exam question papers would be printed. Teachers would also, for the first time, have to sign a pledge confirming they would not commit any irregularity during this year’s matric examinations. Mr Rufus Poliah, DBE Chief Director: National Assessment and Public Examinations, made the announcements during a briefing on matric exam readiness to Parliament. The pledge had normally been signed only by matric candidates to confirm their non-participation in acts of dishonesty during the writing of the examinations.

Status on key examination process:

  • 100% of the November 2023 National Senior Certificate (NSC) question papers had been moderated and approved, and all met the Umalusi approval requirements.
  • The subject structures for the 2023 November NSC examination had been finalised and received by Umalusi to implement for the resulting. The subject entries were finalised for the full-time candidates, with those of the part-time candidates at an advanced finalisation stage.
  • The November 2023 NSC examination timetable was available on the DBE website for all interested stakeholders to access.
  • The candidates' registrations were in the final stage of verification, and preliminary schedules had been sent to schools to make final corrections. The uploads to the mainframe were underway after the preliminary examination in September, with accurate candidates' registration data approved.
  • The national examination was scheduled for the Life Orientation Common Assessment Task (LOCAT) examination on 4 September, and question papers were printed, packaged and stored safely in audited storage facilities before distribution to the distribution points in September.
  • The markers' selection and appointment were underway in September in the provincial Education Departments (PEDs). Umalusi would conduct marker audits in September, as communicated to all PEDs in August.
  • The PED planned to conduct the September prelim examinations, which were finalised with the prelim timetable already issued to schools.
  • Dummy examination admission letters were prepared for use as dry runs during the prelim examinations scheduled for September, which aimed to confirm the accuracy of the registration of full-time candidates.

The national examinations and assessment system have evolved over the years to a significant level of maturity. The DBE currently managed two equal examination opportunities - one in May/June, and the second in October/November. The DBE and PEDs managed three examinations at any time in the year. These were:

  • The past examination (the examination cycle ended with certification);
  • The current examination (finalisation of preparation for the examination that was scheduled in the next few months); and
  • The next examination cycle (which begins 18 months prior to the examination).

See attached for full presentation


Mr P Moroatshehla (ANC) commended the presentation, saying it was encouraging because it addressed both the learner and the system level of readiness.

Regarding ‘Siyavula’ textbooks, what informed the low user rate in Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) compared to Limpopo, despite KZN’s high learner population? What impact did the commercialisation of winter classes have on the availability of top-end performing educators? What tracking of performance was done for those learners taking extra classes to evaluate the impact of the programmes, especially when three post-tests were not undertaken?

The integrity of any examination could be undermined by a simple element of exam irregularity which may arise. This must be taken very seriously, as examinations could either build or destroy one. The learner was, unfortunately, the one who paid the price, and was greatly disadvantaged. To combat this, what new mechanisms had been put in place for the forthcoming examinations?

Ms M van Zyl (DA) referred to an incident of cheating last year, and asked for an update on the security in place to prevent a similar irregularity during the examinations. Regarding the mathematics paper which had an error last year, causing major anxiety among the students who were writing it, what had the Department done to ensure this was prevented from recurring?

Mr T Letsie (ANC) asked what sustainable development plan was in place for markers. Was there a plan in place to ensure there was a pool of markers so that training did not have to take place each year? What irregularities had been reported in the June examination period, and what action had been taken against this? What was the cause for the large increase in registrations for the Independent Examination Board (IEB) examinations? What measures were in place for school-based assessments (SBA) for home-based learners?

What memorandum of understanding (MOU) did the DBE have with higher education institutions to increase awareness of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding opportunities and application processes? It should be borne in mind that some students would apply to tertiary institutions only after receiving final results, so by the time NSFAS made a funding decision on a learner -- which was usually in March -- the learner could lose their place at the university, and this would create issues. This year alone, 20 000 unfortunate learners lost the opportunity for a place at university because of not being able to make payment of the registration fees. This was a huge issue for the poor learners of the country -- what could be done to resolve this?

What had caused the steep decline in part-time enrolments for Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape? Was the decline in mathematical literacy due to the high increase in pure mathematics? Did the Department have incentives for learners to study pure mathematics as opposed to mathematical literacy? Did the Department have adequate resources for teaching and learning technical subjects? What was the plan to ensure enrolment in key subjects such as agricultural sciences, history, mathematics, etc.?

Mr B Nodada (DA) referred to the irregularities of last year, and asked if there was an indication of when the investigations and reports would end? This would inform the implementation of consequence management. He recognised the existing efforts made to curb these irregularities. How many high, medium and low risk centres were in each province? Was there a specific approach to dealing with each of these centres? What was the cause for what seemed to be a steep decline in the registration of candidates? What was the Department doing in this regard? For how long would the three-stream umbrella model be implemented? What could cause the decline between the Grade 11 and Grade 12 learners?

He was very critical of the matric ‘through-put’ rate. The provinces tended to place learners into camps to prepare them for final examinations, and he suggested that this could lead to schools being lazy and relying solely on the camps. He referred to instances where teachers attended private memorial services and the like, and asked if they were still allowed to take leave from teaching. How did this affect the curriculum?

What happened to the Annual National Assessment (ANA)? Was there any alternative in this regard? Internationally, was South Africa benchmarking the best way to assess learners? Some countries banned writing examinations and would just do continued assessments. Could South Africa perhaps use alternative methods of assessment? What was important was the quality of education and not students cramming all their schoolwork, and sadly, South Africa seemed to be more focused on the latter.

Mr B Yabo (ANC) commented that the Class of 2023 had been severely impacted by the global pandemic for a long time, which had resulted in learning losses. What had been the performance of the Class of 2023 in the June examinations? What were the possible effects of a trimmed curriculum? Was the gap in filling key vacant posts still the situation, and what impact could this have? What vetting process had been undertaken for the markers and the invigilators?

The Chairperson asked how the educators had been assisted with the curriculum to assist the learners. How were learners who required educational assistive devices, such as Braille, being supported? In some schools, the learners would share the Braille -- how did this work for the examinations? She requested a progress report on the ‘second chance’ programme. Were the learners who stayed behind after school to study further being provided with food? What measures were in place to ensure that the fairness of the review of question papers would not result in any issues, as had been the case last year with the Setswana paper? Support should be given to Grade 7 learners, as they had anxiety over entering high schools in the following year.

She asked the Department not to respond to all the questions in the meeting because there was not enough time and too many questions to respond to. They could rather respond in written form and submit them later.

Ms N Adoons (ANC) said it was important that the country be updated at this meeting. What was the impact of the likely learning losses for the Class of 2023? Of all the different teaching support models, which was the most useful in preparation for the upcoming examinations? What progress has been made regarding curriculum recovery? Was the learning loss higher in special schools or not? What did the diagnostic report highlight as a challenge for the current class?

Umalusi' responses

Professor Yunus Ballim, Chairperson of the Umalusi Council, delegated questions to certain members of the Umalusi team to provide responses.

Ms Mary-Louise Madalane, Senior Manager: Evaluation and Accreditation, Umalusi, said assessment bodies appointed markers.

The irregularities reported in the June examinations had been "crib" notes, possession of cellphones, group copying and alleged bribery. There were also candidates who were missing examination papers. Most of these issues had been resolved, and candidates had eventually received their results in the end.

For the upcoming examinations, the IEB had registered 17 new schools, thus causing a large increase in the registrations. Home-schooling was only up until Grade 9, so Grade 12 learners were not included there. Umalusi moderated the school-based assessment (SBA), but did not conduct it -- the moderation came through the assessment body.

Mr Emmanuel Sibanda, Executive Manager, Umalusi, said the NSC was their ‘flagship’ qualification. This was of an acceptable standard, according to recent benchmarking. Umalusi was aware of countries which had banned examinations. The DBE was piloting, alongside the General Education Certificate (GEC), and was working towards SBAs. Umalusi was happy in this regard.

Professor Ballim wondered if there was a move towards more private assessment bodies. It was difficult to respond to the reasons for this, but it was a call for concern.

DBE's responses

DG Mweli responded that their current diagnostic information came from Grades 10 and 11. The current Class has been compared to the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2022. The performance varied according to the different subjects. The DBE had had physical meetings to discuss this. The progress with the curriculum recovery in special schools was on par with public schools, but the learning losses would have been much more profound than in the public schools. The global pandemic resulted in higher learning losses than the previous Classes. The Grade 9 learners had been among the last to be brought back to school in a staggered manner. The longer the delay meant the higher the learning loss.

He said the Western Cape was already preparing the Grade 4 learners for high school to mitigate the impact of learning losses. Umalusi was conducting an investigation regarding the error in the mathematics paper last year, and the investigation was still ongoing. Measures were in place to prevent this from recurring. The previous two matric classes were not subjected to a form of controlled assessment for the examinations. Umalusi had been able to mitigate this, and was able to prepare them for the examinations.

The ‘Second Chance’ programme had had mixed reviews-- in some subjects, there was improvement, and in others there was not.

Large and small Braille machines were available for the learners to use. He had not received any complaints about learners not being able to study because of having to share Braille machines. Many schools should have such devices to support their learners.

Umalusi was in discussion about sustainable plans for markers.

Regarding the performance in the June examinations, some subjects had higher grades while others had low grades, and it was still early at this stage.

The ANA had been discontinued as of 2015 and replaced with systemic evaluations.

The ‘camps’ were government’s effort to do the work on behalf of parents who could not afford private tutors. The gap between the rich and poor was so large in the country, that it had called for government intervention.

When would the third stream -- the occupational stream -- be implemented? It is currently being finalised. Mathematics and the sciences remained a priority. The DBE had the capacity to increase technical mathematics, but the enrolment numbers were low. Learners should be encouraged to switch to pure mathematics, the workshops here remained empty and teachers were not fully occupied.

He acknowledged the overall decline in the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces.

NSFAS was under the domain of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

The DBE was negotiating packages with teacher unions which would bring sustainability in the appointment of markers. The Department was happy to report on the security of question papers, bearing in mind that this may lead to a compromise in the security of the examinations. He agreed that exam irregularities were a risk to the integrity of the examinations.

They had pre and post-tests to determine the impact of the after-school programmes.

Dr Poliah said that they had a programme which was piloting for markers training. This was an online training programme which would be integrated with the assessments. Once a candidate had passed, they would be registered on a database and graded. They used the score/grade and other items from the criteria in marker selection. The registration period was between three to five years, and thereafter, the candidate would have to enter a refresher course.

There were three components to be dealt with regarding the examination irregularities -- the process of setting and moderation, the delivery chain, and the school environment and the administration thereof. A thorough audit was done on how the question papers were set and the quality of these papers. It was ensured that the responsible persons were trustworthy. Certain provinces, like the Western Cape, had additional security with the smart-locking system. The biggest issue remained the schooling environment, and a hard line approach was being taken with the school principals. Any school principal implicated in any irregularity in the last two years would immediately be removed from their position. The signing of pledges and commitment agreements had been extended to educators, to instill accountability in them. Any school involved in examination irregularity was considered high risk, and a resident monitor was assigned to them.

The teacher implicated in the Mpumalanga case had been suspended immediately. The cellphone which was confiscated was cleared of any data, and this could not be retrieved. The problem was that the learners had not spoken up about what had transpired. A hard line approach was now taken. Each cellphone was to be registered by each learner, and they were banned from entering the examination room. Metal scanners were used, and the examination rooms were locked. The names of the high, medium and low risk centres could be made available to the Committee. A full report would be released regarding systemic evaluation.

During the pandemic, there has been an increase in waiting for SBAs. Teachers needed to be assessed to ensure they could handle SBAs. Heads of Department (HODs) were doing their best to fill vacant posts, but these vacant posts would not compromise the examinations.

There were criteria to involve community members as invigilators, and this was done to benefit the communities.

Parents would work together to prepare a hot meal for those learners who stayed behind after school to study further.

The pandemic has resulted in a shift of focus from examinations to controlled testing.

DG Mweli interjected to say that more time was required to conduct the quality assurance work. Other role players were considered when drafting the school calendars, and this would continue. These matters have been escalated to the relevant parties.

Dr Reginah Mhaule, Deputy Minister of Basic Education, pledged to strengthen communication with the Department of Higher Education. Together with NSFAS, they needed to give the poor learners a chance to be financially supported. The change could not take place overnight -- it would have to go through a process. Communication needed to be strengthened.

The quality of education was very important. All security measures were in place. Humans were very difficult to work with, but nonetheless, the DBE was doing its best to ensure the credibility of the examinations.

Closing comments

The Chairperson thanked the DBE for their long presentation. and stressed the importance of the meeting. She was happy that the questions had been addressed. She acknowledged the hard work of the DBE, and hoped that learners would get an opportunity to be supported by everyone in their community. Challenges such as load-shedding continued to be an issue, but at least the learners were being supported through all the challenges. She was grateful to the teachers for the work they did.

She wished all the learners the best for their upcoming examinations. All the preparations were underway, and she looked forward to the report regarding the final preparations. She released the DBE.

The meeting was adjourned.


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