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Addressing the media and delegates in Midrand ahead of the release of the official results, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the department had worked hard at improving the standards of the examinations administered to the learners.
She added that the results would have been better if it were not for students who had been promoted to Grade 12 without having necessarily passed Grade 11.
"The national pass rate without progressed learners would have been 74.1%," Motshekga said.
The 2015 matric pass rate was 70.7 %, which was lower than the 75.8% that was recorded last year.
Motshekga explained that one of the key areas of 2015 was to encourage provinces to progress learners who have repeated Grade 11 more than once and who are over-aged.
The progressed learners were given extra support for the Grade 12 National Senior Certificate exams, or allowed to modularise their exams, meaning that they could write part of their exams in November 2015 and the rest in June 2016.
'Largest number of progressed learners to date'
"Consequently, in 2015 we saw the largest number progressed learners since the policy was promulgated in 2013," said Motshekga.
"An analysis of the raw data on progressed learners paints an extremely interesting picture, in particular this year. For the class of 2015, we had 65 671 progressed learners, which was 9.8% of the total number of full-time candidates registered for the 201 NSC examinations."
Of the progressed learners that wrote their exams, 37.6 % (22 060) of them passed their exams, while 3, 97 went on to receive Bachelor passes and qualify to be admitted to university. The progressed learners also scooped over a thousand distinctions.
"8 473 obtained diploma passes; and some 10 264 obtained higher certificate passes," said Motshekga.
The North West recorded the highest pass rate of progressed learners, followed by the Free State ad then KwaZulu-Natal.
KZN, however, was also one of three rural provinces which contributed to the drop in the matric pass rate.
"That's where things went wrong. The number of learners that failed in these three provinces gave us a drop of 9%," Motshekga said.
The other provinces were Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.
Despite the drop in the results, the department of education reported that the number of learners who had passed mathematics had increased from 120 523 in 2014 to 129 481 in 2015.
The same was seen for physical science. A total of 103 348 learners had passed the subject in 2014 and the number had increased to 113 121 in 2015.
While the department had not given clarity on whether any school had obtained a zero percent pass rate, it stated that 38.8 % of all the schools in the country had obtained a pass rate of 80% and above while 6.9% (470) schools had received a 100% pass rate.
The district with the highest pass rate was Sedibeng East at 90.4%.
The department honoured 21 of the country's top scholar at the briefing on Tuesday.
The group was given numerous awards for their achievements including a R300 000 bursary from the SABC.
The highest achieving learner is Andrew Tucker from the SA College High School in the Western Cape, who after missing almost six months of schooling last year due to an illness, still managed to emerge as the top 2015 learner.