The month of January is an interesting one in the South African calendar. It seems that this is the one time in the year when everyone cares about education or, more accurately, cares about matric. In some senses there is a good reason for this – matric is the gateway to higher education.
If we look at 25- to 35-year-olds in the 2011 census data we see that, for those with less than a matric, 47% were unemployed (using the broad definition), compared with 33% among those whose highest qualification was a matric and only 8% for those with a bachelors degree.
Although matric used to be the big distinguisher between the haves and have-nots, increasingly the difference is between those with some kind of tertiary qualification and everyone else.
As usual, maths proved to be a tough gateway subject for those who want to study further. Only one in three learners who wrote maths in 2016 got 40% or more in the subject. A recent study showed that only about 15 000 matrics achieved 70% or more. That’s about 1.5% of students who start school in grade one.
As anyone familiar with maths will tell you the subject is a hierarchical one that builds upon itself. You need to understand multiplication and division before you can understand fractions or rate and proportion.
So where do the wheels come off? Is it just before matric, perhaps in grade nine or 10? Or even earlier in grade four or five?
To shed some light on this question we can turn to some recent maths research published by the Human Sciences Research Council at the end of last year.
Every four years South Africa participates in an international study of maths achievement called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or Timss. We test a nationally representative sample of grade five and grade nine learners on a standardised international test, which is the same test written by thousands of learners elsewhere and allows us to compare ourselves with these other countries (although almost all the countries test their grade four and grade eight learners on these tests).
The most recent round of tests was done in 2015.
The results showed that only 34% of our grade nine learners could do basic maths – in other words, could reach the lowest international benchmark. That is to say that 66% of our learners could not do basic computations or match tables to bar graphs or read a simple line graph. They had not acquired a basic understanding about whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs.
There was, however, one piece of encouraging information that emerged from the study and that was that the number of learners who could do basic maths increased from 24% in 2011 to 34% in 2015, one of the fastest improvements seen internationally.
But if 66% of our grade nine learners can’t do basic maths, when did these gaps emerge?
In 2015, South Africa also participated in the primary-school level of Timms that usually tests grade four learners – we tested our grade five learners. It showed that 61% of grade five learners could not reach the low international benchmark. This means they cannot add or subtract three- or four-digit whole numbers such as 218 and 191. They do not recognise familiar geometric shapes or parallel and perpendicular lines. They cannot read and complete simple bar graphs and tables.
For example, according to our curriculum, multiplying a three-digit number by a one-digit number is meant to be covered in term one of grade four yet only 41% of our grade five learners could calculate “512 x 3 =____”, which was one of the questions. So almost 60% of our grade five learners are already significantly behind the curriculum in 2015.
The conclusion that the root of our problems is not in high school but rather much earlier, in the lower grades of primary school, is not a new finding – there are many studies showing this from at least 1999. In a report published nearly 10 years ago, education researcher Dr Eric Scholar analysed the maths achievement in 154 schools across the country. He concluded that the low levels of achievement we see in the higher grades are rooted in weak foundations in primary school.
To quote his exact conclusion: “The fundamental cause of poor learner performance across our education system is a failure to extend the ability of learners from counting to true calculating in their primary schooling. All more complex mathematics depends, in the first instance, on an instinctive understanding of place value within the base-10 number system, combined with an ability to readily perform basic calculations and see numeric relationships.
“Learners are routinely promoted from one grade to the next without having mastered the content and foundational competences of preceding grades, resulting in a large cognitive backlog that progressively inhibits the acquisition of more complex competencies.
“The consequence is that every class has become, in effect, a ‘multi-grade’ class in which there is a very large range of learner abilities and this makes it very difficult, or even impossible, to consistently teach to the required assessment standards for any particular grade.
“Mathematics, however, is a hierarchical subject in which the development of increasingly complex cognitive abilities at each succeeding level is dependent on the progressive and cumulative mastery of its conceptual frameworks, starting with the absolutely fundamental basics of place value (the base-10 number system) and the four operations (calculation).”
While, as a country, we continue to obsess about the matric pass rate, the research is really quite clear. The majority of our young people are acquiring learning deficits early on in primary school and then carrying these with them as they move through school.
As they are promoted into higher grades there is a decoupling between what learners know and can do and what the curriculum expects from them. We need to acknowledge that matric starts in grade one (and even earlier), and that it really is possible to improve primary schooling if that is where we focus most of our time, energy and resources. – The Teacher
Dr Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the ReSEP group at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter @NicSpaull