Maths is the cornerstone of dozens of careers, yet SA learners perform poorly in the subject. What can be done to remedy the situation?


Maths is the music of reason. Pure maths is the poetry of logical ideas – at least that’s what the masters of mathematics Albert Einstein and his 19th century colleague James Joseph Sylvester said.

However, maths – and for that matter science – don’t seem to gladden the hearts of schoolchildren in SA. Quite the opposite in fact. They’re unpopular subject choices in many schools, with the result that the overall performances in these subjects are poor.

‘SA has worst maths, science education in world,’ proclaimed a headline in June 2014, referring to a WEF publication. The Global Information Technology Report 2014 placed the quality of the country’s maths and science education last out of 148 nations. Countries such as Mauritius (ranked 43rd), Ghana (62nd), Zimbabwe (63rd), Kenya (95th) and Nigeria (117th) out-performed SA in the skills sub-category, which evaluated the quality of maths as well as science education.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) rejected the ‘unfortunate’ report in a media release, stating: ‘The WEF report does not base its research on any actual tests or assessments done by learners, they do not in any way interact with learners in the system or any credible education institutions to get their data. This perception index is based on interviews conducted with business-sector executives and reflects nothing more than their personal perceptions.’

The statement continued: ‘Credible international assessments into the state of mathematics, science and technology [MST] education in SA have consistently shown an improvement in the performance of the country in this regard.’

Referring to the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS), the DBE said the US study ‘showed that schools at the lower end of the performance spectrum, mainly schools in less-advantaged contexts, registered impressive improvements. The 2011 TIMSS pointed to improvements in mathematics and science competencies of Grade 9 learners when compared with Grade 9 learners tested in 2002.

‘Our own local assessments, which include the National Senior Certificate as well as the Annual National Assessments [ANA], have also reflected significant progress in the area of MST.’


But even if SA’s learners are performing partly better than before in these subjects, there is still reason for concern and much room for improvement.

The DA’s shadow minister of basic education Annette Lovemore also issued a statement, saying there was no false insinuation in the WEF report as the overall picture was still frightening. She said: ‘In 2003, 90% of students in Grade 9 failed to reach the “low” level of achievement in the TIMSS testing.

‘In 2011, 76% of students failed to achieve this level. 2013 ANA showed 3% of Grade 9 learners to be grade-appropriately numerate. In 2012, the figure was 2%.’

Also, the business leaders on whose judgment the report was based were ‘as major employers well-placed to assess the standard of the skills displayed by the young people they employ’, she said. ‘This is a state of emergency, and requires appropriate, urgent action.’

Cheryl James, CEO of Fasset – the sector education and training authority (Seta) for finance, accounting, management consulting and other financial services – argues that maths should be mandatory at school.

She says: ‘Pure maths is one of the most important subjects in the school curriculum. In an ideal world, pure maths should be compulsory for all learners until matric. Maths encourages logical reasoning. It helps to solve problems in science, engineering and economics.

‘The logic that one learns from maths also helps one to solve problems in general.

‘Maths is also a door opener to more than 160 different careers. However, far too often learners are unable to pursue their chosen career because they did not take pure maths. Because of the shortage of maths teachers, around 1.3% of high schools in SA did not offer pure maths from Grade 10 to 12 in 2013. These schools only offered maths literacy. Unfortunately, while maths literacy may provide proficiency in basic calculations, it is an inferior option, and it is not recognised by many tertiary institutions.’

She points to high-achieving nations such as China and Singapore, where maths is the number one subject in schools. ‘Taking maths as a subject is the norm. Pupils master maths through repetition and practice,’ she says.

Government has acknowledged its shortcomings and entered into partnerships with corporates and NGOs. An example is the National Education Collaborative Trust (NECT), launched in July 2013.

The idea is for business to fund improvement in education by using its networks and co-operating with the state and NGOs. In 2014, NECT focused its work on fast-tracking urgent infrastructural and managerial school upgrades in eight education districts across the country. In 2015, it will expand this to 20 districts.


‘Pure maths is one of the most important subjects in the School curriculum’


The 16th edition of the CSI Handbook, published by Trialogue, states that education is the development sector that attracts the highest corporate investment, averaging 43% of CSI spend in 2013. Here maths and science continue to be the most popular subject areas for investment.

Financial institutions are at the forefront of corporate maths-proficiency initiatives. It’s a logical link for those working with numbers as core competence.

Nedbank, for instance, has addressed the challenge through its Fundisa mathematics and science programme, which offers support in these subjects to both learners and teachers. The bank also introduced a mobile laboratory and library project to provide kits and teacher training for life sciences, chemistry and physics, as well as books and videos for primary and high school learners.

The FirstRand Foundation, which incorporates the brands First National Bank, Rand Merchant Bank and WesBank, focuses on increasing learner participation in maths and science, and improving the quality of their academic performance. The range of supported programmes includes bridging, learner placement and outreach, bursary support and teacher development programmes.

A total of 2 585 learners took maths and 1 959 enrolled for science in Grade 9 through to Grade 12 in 2013. As a result, 20% of learners passed with marks that would enable them to pursue science and maths courses at tertiary level compared to the national average of 8%.

Meanwhile the FirstRand Foundation Maths Education Chairs Initiative strives for innovative solutions to the nationwide crisis of poor maths teaching and learning. Each chair is expected to develop a partnership with at least 10 selected public schools and deliver formal in-service training. The aim is to produce competent maths teachers in these schools. The project is a five-year partnership involving the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund, the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology.

In high-achieving nations such as China and Singapore, maths is the number one subject in schools

Mining giant Anglo American has established the independent Epoch and Optima Trusts to help further excellence in maths education. The goal is to strengthen achieving but under-funded secondary schools so that they can increase the number of learners with strong maths passes.

Many more successful examples exist of corporate support in these subjects.

According to CSI advisory service Tshikululu, maths and science interventions couldn’t be successful without taking broader contextual issues into account.

For example, it said, learners strongly benefit from complementary support to maths and science interventions such as career guidance, exposure to bursary opportunities and psychosocial support. The use of ICT to facilitate programme delivery is empowering for both educators and learners.

Teacher-development programmes must include performance measurement mechanisms in order to gauge any changes in their content knowledge, pedagogical skills and the academic performance of their learners.

James says that efforts should be made to upskill teachers in these areas and make teaching a more attractive profession. She says: ‘The longer-term solution needs to be government driven. Greater attention needs to be paid to ensuring that learners in primary school master the basics.’

She says that parents can also play a role by establishing maths and science as the number one school subject.

René Toerien, a former maths and science teacher who is completing her PhD in science education at the University of Cape Town, says: ‘I think the general scientific literacy needs to be upped in SA. This starts with the parents and long before children enter formal schooling.

‘From a very young age, kids need to be made aware of the science and maths all around them. Their natural inquisitiveness needs to be kept alive throughout their schooling, that way they may consider studying science after matric,’ she says.

This ties in with the Renaissance scholar Galileo who said: ‘If I were again beginning my studies, I would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics.’ If only more SA learners followed this advice, they might discover its poetry.

By Silke Colquhoun
Images: Fredrik Broden/reneerhyner.com