Every year the South African education community joins the nation in collective soul-searching and celebration when matric – or formally, the National Senior Certificate (NSC) – results are released. National interest in the results is no surprise, as we all – parents, community, business, government – have a stake in what they reveal. For many, the NSC represents a snapshot of the state of education in the country.
While we share in celebrating the increasing number of young South Africans who pass the NSC, we are concerned about their performance in the gateway subjects of mathematics and physical science.
There are two critical issues that relate to the mathematics and physical science results. The first is the proportion of learners enrolled for mathematics (rather than mathematics literacy) and physical science in the further education training phase (that is, grades 10, 11 and 12). The second is the quality of passes achieved.
We are particularly concerned that the number of learners who sit for examinations in these subjects at grade 12 and the number getting a good pass at NSC level – which provides a gateway into maths-related and science-related tertiary study – is falling.
The basic education department's reports indicate a 17% decline in the number of candidates who wrote mathematics between 2009 and 2013 (from about 290 400 to 241 400). At the same time, the number of candidates writing mathematics literacy rose sharply to 58% of the 2013 cohort.
Likewise, the number of candidates who wrote physical science has also fallen by 17% over the same period (from about 220 900 to 184 300). Critically, as the number selecting to do mathematics is dropping, the overall number of learners who are achieving an NSC pass with more than 40% in mathematics has been falling over the same period to 17% of the class of 2013.
This means the national pool of students able to do a degree which requires mathematics is very limited – that is, degrees such as engineering, law, accountancy and teaching degrees in mathematics and physical science.
Several international studies and the Annual National Assessment (ANA) results indicate that the problem with mathematics has its roots in primary school, where many learners fail to gain basic mathematical skills. The 2013 ANA results saw only 39% of grade six learners and 2% of grade nine learners scoring more than 50% in mathematics.
Stellenbosch University researcher Nic Spaull recently questioned in a Mail & Guardian article the validity of the ANA results ("Assessment results don't make sense", December 11 2013). Even so, however, we can already see a pattern emerging – less than half the learners in each cohort show foundational competence in mathematics, as indicated by the 61% of grade six learners who failed to score 50%.
In grade seven, the senior phase (grades seven, eight and nine) begins. The curriculum content and learning materials assume that by the senior phase learners have mastered basic mathematics concepts. Therefore, the basics are no longer taught in this phase. It follows that, for those learners who have failed to grasp the basics, their chances of success as they approach the exit point in schooling are considerably diminished.
We know that such children find ways of coping that are unproductive and result in avoidance strategies or subterfuge that further hinder their learning. They learn when to put up their hands to avoid being asked questions and they copy classwork and homework, leaving many teachers believing they know the work. This means that no one confronts the reality that more than half the learners in many schools have only a passing understanding of the gateway subjects they are being taught.
The significance of the dramatic dip in performance at grade nine level is therefore not that the education system is "unlearning" our learners, but is a direct consequence of compounding backlogs and increasingly inventive ways learners use to beat the system and dodge detection, with dire consequences for individual learners and the system.
Secondary schools often deal with the problem in two ways. They try and stop all but the most able learners selecting to do mathematics and physical science in grade 10, and also hold back (or "warehouse", as some teachers refer to the practice) learners in the mathematics stream who fail grade 10 or grade 11 exams.
Then, in grade 11 and 12, teachers attempt to ensure that the NSC results are good by cramming and question-spotting in extra classes, Saturday schools and through private tutor programmes. This often leaves learners with the ability to pass the NSC but with no depth to their knowledge – a fact that is only discovered at tertiary level.
Two interventions are urgently required to resolve this problem. Firstly, the teachers in upper primary and lower secondary levels need further training both in teaching basic mathematics and in how to identify learners who lack foundational mathematical skills. Our experience in teacher training has revealed that not enough attention is given to maths content and pedagogy in pre-service primary school teacher training programmes.
Secondly, these learners need to be provided with urgent remedial assistance to deal with backlogs. This will require either additional remedial teachers whose role it is to work with such learners in parallel classes until they are ready for reintegration into the mainstream system or further training of classroom teachers to identify and put in place extra foundational work for these learners, possibly supported by teaching assistants.
These solutions will require a re-evaluation of conditions in classrooms, from the large size of classes in many schools to teachers' capacity to absorb more responsibilities. What cannot be allowed to continue is for these legions of learners to go on sitting in mathematics and physical science classrooms understanding and learning very little.
Given this picture, it is only logical that the nation approaches the release of the NSC results with a tinge of reality. We should by now have moved away from knee-jerk reactions to NSC results poor to finding long-term solutions that can impact at the foundational levels of learning, while continuing the quick – if short-term – interventions that do work for those already disadvantaged by shortcomings in the system.
The ANAs tell us that the legacy of sagging performance will be with us for a while. We know that provincial education departments have put in place various programmes to support foundation phase education. Some are starting to bear fruit as evidenced in improved performance in the grade three ANAs.
It is imperative that we sustain and build on this performance, and only then can we start talking about turning the corner at grade 12. With the correct interventions at the correct points, and the improvement in the take-up of mathematics and physical science in grade 10, real success in the NSC exams in grade 12 can be expected. This is needed for South Africa to achieve its growth and development goals.
Gail Campbell is the chief executive of the Zenex Foundation and Martin Prew is an independent education specialist. The authors would like to thank Fatima Adam, communications and research manager at Zenex, and Ruth Rakosa, the foundation's communications manager, for their input.
The Zenex Foundation is an independent specialist grant-making agency undertaking the delivery of programmes and projects in mathematics, science and language education in South Africa. For more information, go to zenexfoundation.org.za.