Do the maths: Results not in line with SA's ambitions

The number of quality maths and physical science passes achieved by the class of 2011 bodes ill for government’s plans to create five million jobs by 2020.

Maths is a gateway subject to higher education, particularly in the more technical fields such as science and engineering.

South Africa’s new growth path, set out by the minister of economic development, Ebrahim Patel, aims to create five million jobs by 2020, while the national development plan outlined by minister in the presidency national planning commissioner Trevor Manuel proposes creating 11-million jobs by 2030.

And while only a fraction of these need to be filled by graduates with science- and mathematics-related skills, there are concerns that these positions will go unfilled.

“We need more technically skilled people to drive the economy,” says Shireen Motala, professor in the research and innovation division at the University of Johannesburg.

But there’s an overall sense in the education sector, Motala says, that the supply of potential students ready for higher education is too low to meet the economic needs of the country.

Pass rate on the rise
The matric exemption rate for 2011 was 24.3%—almost 5% higher than it was three years ago—but Motala said this should be closer to 35% in order to build the human capital needed to drive economic growth.

Although the matric pass rate for 2011 was at a high of 70.2%, the state remains concerned about the falling numbers of students studying maths at matric level. Last year only 224 635 of the country’s 496 090 matrics wrote the mathematics exam and fewer than half of the candidates passed the subject with at least 30%.

Jonathan Clark, director of the schools development unit at the University of Cape Town’s School of Education, says that in order to judge the quality of the education system, one needs to know how many students are passing subjects like maths and physical sciences with more than a 50% mark.

“You need to score at least 50% to have any chance of getting into any degree course,” he says. “It’s only there that you start getting an education of quality.”

Technical abilities
The education department has now revealed that only 41 586 matrics—or less than 20% of those who wrote the maths exam—scored more than 50% for maths.

Servaas van der Berg, professor of economics at Stellenbosch University, says the major impact of such low levels of maths achievement was on the country’s growth, which is influenced by workers’ technical abilities.

“The technical efficiency of a country is based on the sophistication of the labour force and how well trained it is,” he says.

“In the absence of this, you significantly lower the levels of growth that we’re likely to see, and growth is one of the most important determinants of job creation,” he says.

“You need maths passes in order to have more science degrees, to fill the sort of positions that would make us a technically advanced country,” he says.

Disadvantaged at university
He says that when students opt out of maths, and choose to take the simpler subject, such as mathematical literacy, it places them at a disadvantage at university and makes it less likely that they’ll choose to study more technical subjects.

But Sizwe Mabizela, the chief executive of government’s quality assurance body Umalusi, says that while the national performance in maths, physical sciences and accounting is concerning, he does not necessarily believe that it is the purpose of schooling to prepare students for university.

“Our schooling system is meant to serve a much broader purpose,” he says. “The [National Senior Certificate, or NSC] caters more broadly for those who want to go to university as well as those who want to work.”

Rather, the NSC aims to provide “general education” and seeks to produce “able, competent, numerate, literate and educable young people”. Some of these students would go on to higher education, while others would go into the world of work.

He said that because of this, universities would naturally need to “do some scaffolding” to bring matriculants up to the level they needed to be at in order to cope with the demands of a university education.

Almost 42% of South Africans between the ages of 18 and 29 are unemployed. The planning commission’s national development plan, released late last year, acknowledges that, without quality education, training and innovation, “society’s ability to solve problems, develop competitively, eliminate poverty and reduce inequality are severely hampered”.

Van der Berg says the state needs to focus on increasing its capacity to teach maths well but points out that this is a slow process: “The impact of bad education stretches across more than one generation. A very large proportion of schools simply do not have the teachers who can teach maths at an appropriate level and that’s something we have not addressed.”

“It’s important to break the cycle of poor maths teaching and learning,” he says. “But it’s not possible to do this in a single generation.”

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker


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