Teachers flunk maths

A coalition of Western Cape-based mathematics teachers is appealing to the National Department of Education to suspend the format of the mathematics curriculum for grade 10 to 12 learners, claiming educators are not adequately equipped to teach it.

The group, Concerned Maths Educators (CME), is circulating a petition to mathematics teachers countrywide.

The new mathematics curriculum requires learners to take either mathematical literacy or pure mathematics. There is no higher-grade or standard-grade in either subject and pure maths, which allows learners access to a wider range of university degrees, is more difficult than the former higher-grade maths, according to mathematics experts. This is the first year that learners will write mathematical literacy and pure mathematics at exit level.

South Africa has ranked poorly in international surveys on mathematics and science proficiency levels. Recently the World Economic Forum rated South Africa 120th for maths and science.

More than half of South Africa’s mathematics and science teachers are unqualified, according to the CME. In 2006 there were fewer higher-grade maths and science passes than in 2005.

The CME expressed grave doubts about the success of the newly introduced mathematics curriculum, saying it was ‘rushed through” and completely ignores the dire shortage of trained and qualified maths teachers in the country.

CME’s co-ordinator, Aslam Mukadam, said the new mathematics curriculum is inaccessible to most learners, particularly in poor communities where the shortage of qualified teachers is acute.

He said the CMEs are calling for a ‘middle ground”, which entails the re-introduction of the old format, whereby maths was offered at higher and standard grades.

‘We believe there must be contingency plans until such time as the country has a sufficient number of qualified maths teachers,” said Mukadam.

In its present format the new maths curriculum disadvantages great numbers of learners who do not have a solid background in mathematics. ‘In the past we used to have higher and standard-grade versions, where learners with a high degree of competency in maths would take it on higher grade, while those who struggle would take it on standard grade,” said Mukadam.

This provided learners with a ‘reasonable middle ground”. ‘It allowed learners to build skills and knowledge without the more rigorous conceptual demands of higher grade. We argue that this option should not be lost to learners as it provided entrance to universities of technology in careers such as engineering, architecture, construction studies and business studies, to mention a few,” he said.

The mathematical literacy course does not equip learners with elementary mathema-tics skills because it does not focus on core mathematical concepts such as algebra, calculus, analytical geometry and trigonometry, he said.

CME has put together an alternative package of contingency strate-gies for 2009. These include the introduction of a three-tier system, which comprises mathematical lite-racy, ‘intermediate maths”, which is similar to standard-grade maths, and the pure mathematics course.

Jonathan Jansen, honorary professor of education at the University of the Witwatersrand and National Research Foundation fellow, supports the scrapping of the new system.

‘Once again here we have an instance where good curriculum ideas run ahead of implementation realities in the case of mathematical education. We simply do not have enough teachers with the depth of subject-matter knowledge.”

An independent maths consultant, Aarnout Brombacher, slammed the notion of ‘intermediate mathematics” as it would force learners to take standard-grade maths to improve pass rates.

‘In the process we lost many potential higher-grade passes.” Standard grade ‘prevented mobility for standard-grade learners to [upgrade to] higher grade”.

But several educators with considerable maths teaching experience have endorsed the call for the education department to change tack, indicating that the CME’s stand has struck a chord with teachers.

Stanley Adendorff, with 26 years’ maths teaching experience, said: ‘It is mind-boggling why the curriculum developers ignored the intermediate maths options and introduced only two very extreme options.”

Fatima Abrahams, who has taught maths for 30 years, said she found 2007 the ‘most stressful and disturbing year, as most learners were struggling with most concepts. This broke their spirit.”

Penny Vinjevold, deputy director general of further education and training, said: ‘We have researched the situation extensively. The current situation [the combination of mathematical literacy and pure mathematics] has widespread support. We will continue to monitor the situation to see if there are any disadvantages to learners.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday