Starting now, South Africa’s pupils will be able to obtain as little as 20% in mathematics in Grades 7, 8 and 9 and still progress to the next year of learning. This has been touted by many as evidence of an alleged inexorable decline in educational standards.
The country is already known for its poor performance in international standardised assessments in mathematics. This latest move may be misconstrued as condoning such poor achievement.
But the truth is a little more complex.
For Grades 7 and 8 – when pupils should be between 14 and 15 years of age – this strategy of “pushing through” to avoid repeated student retention is not new. It has been part of standard policy. This means that by the time pupils reach Grade 9, there’s a bottleneck in the system. It was inevitable that this pressure would need to be relieved.
To understand why, one must consider the confluence of a number of factors, including: the over-inflated importance of mathematics; a curriculum packed too full to allow for any slip-ups or slower learning rates, and the country’s struggling maths teachers. Maths performance correlates directly with poverty factors, meaning these challenges affect more than 75% of South Africa’s schools.
Inflated value of maths
In the past 20 years there’s been a major shift internationally towards thinking of education in purely economic terms (as opposed to critical citizenry, creativity or self-actualisation). This reduction of education to purely economic ends, coupled with the conflation between mathematical prowess and problem-solving skills for the “knowledge economy”, has resulted in mathematics being isolated as “essential knowledge”. Its proponents insist that maths is required for an education of value.
To fully appreciate this shift in thinking, South Africans need to suspend their collective amnesia: passing mathematics was not a requirement to move into Grade 10 a generation ago. And yet adults from this era are often economically productive, creative and academically accomplished. Many would publicly acknowledge their own struggles with numbers.
The vast majority of jobs of many flavours and incomes do not require the type of maths taught even in Grade 9. This is forgotten when mathematics is positioned as supremely important for the job market, or for students’ personal development.
Against the backdrop of this increased emphasis on mathematics, it’s useful to consider key features of the National Policy Pertaining to the Promotion Requirements of the National Curriculum Statement.
An excessive emphasis on mathematics permeates this policy. Passing mathematics with “moderate” performance (that is, 40% or more) is now a criterion for passing in every grade. It’s a criterion many students do not meet.
The second issue is the “maximum four years in phase” policy. According to this, a pupil may not repeat more than one year in each three year phase of compulsory schooling. If a pupil has already repeated a year in a phase, they are “progressed” through into the next grade – whether they meet the promotion/pass criteria or not.
This “maximum four years in phase” policy bites at the end of Grade 9. Pushing pupils through without passing maths was a viable option in lower grades, as there was a “next grade” to progress to. But leaving Grade 9 without passing means leaving school without the General Education and Training certificate required for admission to a technical college.
In the past, officials and schools have often suspended the “max four years” criterion to give pupils another opportunity to try and attain a recognisable school leaving qualification, requiring a maths score of higher than 40%. For pupils who have been failing maths for years, this is almost impossible.
The pressure to move learners through the system is immense. Each year, principals and senior teachers suffer validation meetings, an event where schools justify their decisions to the provincial education department about whether students who failed should repeat or progress.
As a former mathematics Head of Department who has attended such meetings, I came to appreciate the lottery involved about who was “progressed” and who was not, as officials clandestinely tweak results until the number of students moved through was politically acceptable. Often those with 20% or more would have their marks “adjusted” to 30% for what is referred to as a “condoned pass”. As teachers, we are told to “find marks” in assessments to justify passing or condoning borderline students.
But sometimes there are just not enough marks to find.
Huge learning backlogs
The second policy that adds to the conundrum is the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). This demands strict adherence to pacing and content. Mathematics in CAPS moves at breakneck speed: ten jam-packed weeks of content per term, even though there are often only eight weeks of actual lessons.
Curriculum advisers regularly correct teachers who deviate from the stated content and pacing of curriculum documents. That means a teacher who has the confidence and ability to address learning backlogs by professionally interpreting the curriculum to meet a pupil’s needs is often criticised for doing so. Teachers without this confidence or skill will not even attempt the task.
Such rigidity is in stark contradiction to the National Policy Pertaining to the Promotion Requirements, which is peppered with phrases regarding tailoring learning to address backlogs and learning barriers.
Primary schools pragmatically push over-age (16 years old) Grade 7 pupils through to Grade 8 in senior schools. Senior schools then receive under-prepared pupils who are too old to refer to schools of skills or special needs schools – the maximum referral age is 14. There is nothing to be done but to try and teach struggling learners, knowing they will be pushed up into Grade 9 where they will get stuck or drop out. After Grade 9, the pupil enrolment dwindles rapidly as students lose the protection of being pushed through by the conveyor belt.
Together, these policies effectively put pupils on a one way track into Grade 9 irrespective of their performance in mathematics at lower grades. Then it has kept them in Grade 9 by insisting they meet the pass criteria… until now.
Struggling mathematics teachers
Two urgent issues, most concentrated in schools that serve the country’s poorest learners, further exacerbate what is already an obviously disastrous situation.
Firstly, the mathematics abilities of primary school teachers is a problem experienced in many countries, including the US and the UK, but particularly in South Africa. Mathematics specialists are appointed in high schools. Primary school teachers are trained as generalists. Yet it is in primary school where the learning backlog begins.
Secondly, teachers’ working conditions in poorer schools are abysmal. Those teachers who can leave often do, and mathematics teachers in particular often possess transferable skills. They relocate to other schools or other industries for better working conditions.
Primary schools thus struggle to provide the crucial foundations for maths, and secondary schools struggle to retain the specialists who might be able to address the problem later.
Relieving the self-applied pressure
It’s no wonder then that Grade 9 is the largest cohort in South Africa’s senior schools. Nor should it come as a surprise that large percentages of these classes are extremely weak at mathematics. Many pupils have barriers to learning that have been unaddressed for so long that there is little to be done at this late stage.
The Department of Basic Education has snookered itself by applying tight Grade 9 promotion criteria based on mathematics, without providing the means to meet them. This latest move is simply a welcome, realistic – and long overdue – acknowledgement that the ability to factorise quadratic functions is not a prerequisite for an educated child.