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Why SA’s declining maths performance is worrying

This ‘gateway’ subject is among those considered critical for the country’s economic growth and development.
Image: Shutterstock

South Africa’s Department of Basic Education recently released the country’s National Senior Certificate results for the class of 2019. These are commonly known as the “matric results” and they determine school-leavers’ admission and placement into tertiary level study. About 81.3% of those who wrote the matriculation exams passed. There has been much well-deserved celebration of this achievement of the highest post-apartheid national matric pass rate.

What the country is not hearing about from the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, is the drop in performance in mathematics. It is one of the “gateway” subjects, subjects which are considered critical for the country’s economic growth and development.

This decline can be measured in two ways. There is a reduction in the number of students writing mathematics from 270,516 in 2018 to 222,034 in 2019. The second measure is the performance: only 54% of the pupils who wrote the exam passed it. This pass rate is down from 58% in 2018. The minimum score for a pass is 30%. This means only 54% of mathematics exam candidates achieved a mark of at least 30%. Of all the maths candidates only 2% (4,415) achieved distinctions. A distinction is a score of 80%-100%. This is down from 2.5% in 2018.

Why does this matter?

The drop in numbers of pupils writing the grade 12 mathematics exam should be of great concern. Performance in mathematics matters for university entrance. Without it, school leavers are not eligible for programmes at university in science or engineering or some in commerce. A decline signals the closing of the doors of opportunity in these fields to a growing number of students. This will only increase inequality. Economics researcher Nic Spaull’s research has shown that the top 200 high schools in the country produce 97% of the mathematics distinctions. The majority of these schools charge significant fees.

The deterioration in performance is also of great concern. Getting a pass (30%) may secure a diploma or university entrance but these low pass marks will not prepare students to succeed at mathematics at university level.

This development runs contrary to the needs of the fourth industrial revolution, which requires highly competent graduates in the science, technology, engineering and maths areas. Strong performance in mathematics is essential for careers in computing, programming, finance and machine learning.

Universities need to shoulder the blame

Universities cannot absolve themselves of this national challenge. At the University of Cape Town data from the Courses Impeding Graduation project is being analysed to better understand incoming students’ challenges, specifically in courses like Mathematics 1.

In this course a worrying pattern of performance emerged. A minimum mark of 70% for maths in matric is needed to get into Mathematics 1 at the university. Based on several years of data, an average of 33% of students fail this course. Those students who enter with a 90% mark for maths in matric score a pass in Mathematics 1 with an average mean of 64%. Those students who achieved between 80% and 89% in matric fail the course with an average mean of 47%. Those who achieved between 70% and 79% in matric fail with an average mean of 43%.

Unless a student achieved a distinction for mathematics at school level they are at risk of failing it at university level. Students who fail Mathematics 1 will inevitably take longer to complete their degree and are at higher risk of being excluded from the university.

Dealing with the problem

The University of Cape Town is taking responsibility for its share in these dismal results. A number of interventions have been put in place over recent years to provide additional support to students. These include “maths labs”, Saturday workshops, and even providing multilingual resources to support students who are not yet fluent in the medium of instruction.

Expert maths teachers have been appointed to lecture this challenging course. But the overall failure rates of approximately one third of the class have remained stubbornly in place. A decision was taken in 2019 to revise the Mathematics 1 curriculum to ensure a greater alignment between schooling and university curriculum.

This kind of curriculum review raises a number of complex issues: what is the appropriate content to ensure a relatively seamless transition from school maths to university maths? Do different disciplinary areas like actuarial science, chemistry and engineering need different kinds of mathematics courses? How can the pacing of the curriculum accommodate different learning needs? How can educational technology support innovative forms of teaching and learning mathematics? These are global issues, not unique to South Africa.

The national euphoria around the national pass rate means nothing if it hides problems such as declining mathematics performance.The Conversation

Suellen Shay, Professor, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Getting into varsity is based on skin color, not good marks in matric. The quota system dictates who goes to varsity.

Especially medicine. How is it that the Human Rights bodies do not investigate certain universities (especially the biggest in KZN) that let the “correct” demographic enter into medicine with a 50% matric yet refuse other demographics with 95% matric?

Like I said, rainbow nation was always a con fed to the massess to allow for blunder of the country.

Please don’t spread lies, no student gets into UKZN medicine programme with a 50% matric. No black student get into medicine with <75%.

The right demographics are very important. Some doctors don't want to serve in the rural areas where the sick are black and poor. The gov has to strike a fine balance between rewarding current achievements in matric and making sure there are doctors to work in the bundus. We need more doctors who are not crazy about emigrating

My daughter a case in point – 6 distinctions in matric – had to get an B honours degree Cum Laude before being accepted for medicine – this country need all the emigration of talent it gets ne!!!!!!

@New York: Lies eh? Ok so why was there a scandal of parents having to bribe to get their kids (with good marks) into medical school? Why is Mauritius so popular? Why did many of those that were sent to Cuba return (with bad particulary references from the Cubans?).

Stop being an apologist. Ignorance is bliss unless you live in SA.
And another thing, o bleeding heart, how many qualified doctors actually go to the rural areas? Very few once qualified regardless of demographic. So there goes that argument.

The only balance the government is striking is the rate at which SA is declining (fast vs faster).

You have to at the very minimum qualify for a bachelors pass.
If you don’t no amount of quota can save you.

SA does not need maths and physical sciences – SA need POLITICAL SCIENTISTS because they can then be cadre deployed to do ANY job – they mos the have all the SCIENCES ne !!!!!!

“Expert maths teachers have been appointed to lecture this challenging course”..therein lies the problem. It is this form of language that makes the students fear and avoid mathematics. Maths is a form of language and the earlier we communicate this to our students the better. its doable folks, juss constant practice anyone can pass it. can we also do away with maths lit and juss deal with Mathematics…icho.

True words Mr.Makombe. You know what you are talking about.

I wish I was in your maths class. It would have saved me years of confusion. An approachable and capable teacher makes all the difference. Yes, the learner must also have the ability and determination as well as respect for the teacher.

that is ex-actually what maths are, a language, the more you practice and “speak” it the better you get at it. And like any other language,if you grew up with it…..even better…..that is why our mathematical trees are not growing….because they have no roots 😉

you don’t need a degree to steal, just a standard 3.

“There is a reduction in the number of students writing mathematics from 270,516 in 2018 to 222,034 in 2019.”

You should also be looking at the percentage writing core maths vs maths literacy.

Certain private schools are pushing children into maths literacy to keep their pass rate high. Many of these children would pass core maths if the school provided decent teachers. Instead they find teachers that are willing to work for low salaries. There is no visibility on the financial reports in these schools as we have in former model C schools.

I agree with TryingToRetire. My granddaughter, who wrote Matric in 2019 was prevented from writing core maths because the expensive private school she attended did not want to take the trouble to help and she and another student who was in the same boat. The entry level to core was 5 per cent higher than neighbouring private schools and she missed it by 2% and and the other student by 1%. The school refused to help and my granddaughter and the other child concerned wrote Maths Lit. Funny enough her teacher tried to change the Headmaster’s stance but to no avail. No consideration was given to the fact that she had been ill and had missed many days of school. Eventually, her self confidence was so shattered that her mother gave up the fight.

She has a good IEB matric and is set to go to varsity to do a primary school degree. The school is very proud of its record of 100% pass mark, but at what cost! I know rules are rules but we are talking about a child’s future and rules can be broken.

This situation follows when the principle’s ego is larger than his IQ. This type of person should not be in the profession. He missed his calling. He prostitutes his profession for a pass rate.

@Henriques I sent my daughter to a finishing school where she had an excellent maths and science teacher. She re-wrote matric and is now final year BSc at Wits.

Why did I pay such high private school fees? There is no oversight at these schools and they do as they please. From sex scandals to academics.

Lol. But hey, ja no, full steam ahead with the 4th industrial revolution we will go!

I went to one of the so called ‘prestige schools’ in Stellenbosch and finished school in 1988. More than half of the class was taking extra math lessons and were doing things like Master Maths etc. Despite this, maths HG was still a difficult subject for most pupils other those with a natural gift for maths. Now call me cynical, but if more than half of
the learners have to take extra lessons in a subject, then surely there is something wrong with the way in which the subject is being taught and the textbooks which they use. If it went like that in one of the so-called ‘prestige schools’, goodness knows how it is supposed to go in Kayalitsha or Sebokeng where children can’t afford extra lessons. Something is wrong with the textbooks and/or the style of teaching maths and it doesn’t look like it is improving.

I did just fine in a rural school. The trick with mathematics is to get a teacher who can explain the calculus in vernacular!

Ja like e-integral of e-limit between e-infinity and approaching e-zero

Math is the most important subject because it teaches logic. It is like a friend of mine said- “It is impossible to have a coherent conversation with someone who did not have maths.” This explains the huge communication gap in local politics. This explains why voters still support a political party that robs them blind, why they cannot connect the dots.

Our problem is that we have teachers who teach maths, who do not fully understand maths. We have students who excel at languages but still struggle with math, while math is simply the universal language. The curriculum is successful at teaching students about the difficulty, the impossibility to understand math. So this is what learners understand. Why do learners, who are able to communicate in any of the local languages, find it impossible to communicate in math?

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein.

And therein lies the problem… We have teachers teaching math, who themselves don’t understand it and who are not qualified to teach it, but as there are nobody else to do it, they are happy to help out. Education as a whole is problematic, no matter what the pass rate suggests; To fix this, 1. Schools need to be administered in an efficient and effective manner,
2. Schools need to hire quality teachers who are committed to the greater cause of education (only), and
3. Parents need to be involved and concern themselves with the standard of education exposed to their children.

Our maths textbook in the early 90s had the following on the inside cover:’Nobody ever really understands maths, they just get used to it’

I suspect the real answer is video / computer based teaching. Imagine the union and tender bunfight if it was ever contemplated!


“if more than half of
the learners have to take extra lessons in a subject,…”

Not all take these extra lessons because they cannot do the subject. Some take the extra lessons simply to improve and do better than on their own. Something like a professional golfer or tennis player. They want to do better not just “pass”. Good for them.

4400 distinctions in maths? So spit that amongst all of the professions requiring high maths: Engineers, scientists, medical, accounting, etc etc, and there are way too few. There will be use for the grey beards for a long time to come.

I’ve always found it strange that aspiring medics require a good pass in maths in the first place. They drop anything to do with arithmetic (never mind trig, calculus etc.) as soon as they leave school (I discount any small skill required to issue patients with invoices). Good mathematicians should rather enter the more demanding STEM fields, where their talents are better utilised.

@Pistov : Studying medicine has not required tertiary mathematics now for almost a decade already.

In the medical field challenges for students seem to be chemistry related subjects and statistics. Physical sciences should be lumped with maths as a challenge for our schools.

This “gray beard” refuse to support a communist/socialist country – find some Cubans to do it!!!!

There is nothing to get nationally euphoric about when the ANC made the pass rate 30% (which means 70% fail)

I don’t think the problem is in the textbooks used but is in the way it is taught:

1. Lack of resources. Why can’t all schools be it in semi urban or deep rural have 24 hour security, a whiteboard, overhead data projector, laptops with educational software? So that teachers can be creative and deliver lessons effectively. Here is what you need to understand, teachers spend a lot of time writing notes, examples on the board and learners copying by the time it is time for activity only about 15 min of the period is remaining.

2. Overcrowding: up to 90 learners in one class I know some of you have no idea what I am talking about. Also this point is linked to point number 1, if teachers take more time delivering the lesson and less time is available for learners to do activities it also means poor monitoring. Now if you were in that class would you pass? What if your book was not checked the whole week or month even? In my experience learners get interested in the subject if work is checked.

3. Poor parenting: If my learner in grade 10 is 15 years old and I call his/her parent a 29 30 year old shows up it means this person had a baby at 15 years so expect the learner to do the same. Instead of focusing on homeworks play whatsapp chatting with boyfriends/girlfriends, update status, sexually active, dating older guys. What am I supposed to do if the entire class comes back next morning having not done the two problems I gave them? Ohh my God i clould go on and on.

4. No one is doing anything 🙁 .The government when they say they have invested billions in basic education they mean expensive textbook that teachers order year in and year out. I have stopped ordering any textbook for Physical Sciences at my school. I was furious when I found out that the funds allocated to my school can only be used for textbook cannot be used to buy Laboratory equipment for example or anything I need to teach effectively. Why is that?

PS: I am a high school teacher in rural area qualified to teach both Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I teach Physical Sciences and Natural Sciences

‘Wisdom’ according to Jacob Zuma: Be careful of mathematics, it is White man evil there to oppress us. Umshini wami, we will shoot those equations.

End of comments.





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