In my role as a physics researcher, maths and science educator and executive dean of science at Nelson Mandela University, I am extremely concerned about the state of maths and physical science education in South Africa. It cannot continue along its current trajectory of poor performance.
I have repeated over the years that I am not interested in 30% pass thresholds; I am interested in quality passes and in increased numbers of matriculants achieving good marks in physical science and maths. This is what we should be focusing on if we are to give these school leavers a chance of a good future with careers in the rapidly evolving fourth industrial revolution (4IR).
We can achieve this, as evidenced by the consistently excellent results of a number of rural schools in the rural Vhembe district of Limpopo. These schools have a strong culture of learning and teaching, including in science and maths, dating back 100 years.
If we look at the top 33 matriculants in 2019, the highest number was from Limpopo (9), followed by KwaZulu-Natal (8), Western Cape (5), Mpumalanga (5), Eastern Cape (3), Gauteng (2), Northern Cape (1), Free State (0) and North West (0).
Why is it that Limpopo produced so many top achievers? To answer this, I would like to take you to the Vhembe district in that province. What repeatedly stands out is the performance of three schools in the Vhembe district: Mbilwi Secondary, Tshivhase Secondary and Thengwe Secondary. The district should be celebrated for producing top results every year, including in critical subjects.
In the 2019 matric examinations, the highest mark for physical science in South Africa was achieved by Lutendo Mulaisi from Thengwe Secondary. The third highest mark for maths nationally was achieved by Mukona Martin Ranzida from Mbilwi Secondary. South Africa’s top performer at a special needs school, Tiyani Mbedzani, is from Rivoni School for the Blind, also in the Vhembe district.
All three of South Africa’s quintile two top achievers are from the Vhembe district, two from Patrick Ramaano Secondary, and one from Matavhela Secondary.
The top matriculant for 2019 in Limpopo, Mutshidzi Ganyane from Patrick Ramaano Secondary, achieved seven distinctions, including in maths and physical science. She is also South Africa’s top matriculant from quintile two schools.
Maths achiever Mukona talks about how his science teacher encouraged him to develop an interest in maths and physical science. He and Lutendo, South Africa’s top physical science student, will study maths and science at university.
Lutendo says he pushed on despite Thengwe Secondary’s limited resources, adding that his parents played a huge role in making sure he had every book he needed. Mutshidzi credits her achievement to the support she got from her teachers and parents, and will be studying computer engineering.
What the high-performing schools in the Vhembe district demonstrate is that learners are up to outstanding achievements when given the right kind of guidance and a foundation of learning and teaching. Their principals, teachers, the department of basic education, families, communities and traditional leaders need to be recognised because they play a central role in supporting the culture of education and the success of the learners.
The culture of learning and teaching in the Vhembe district dates back to the 1920s, when the first schools were built in Venda in the current Vhembe district and run by the community with the full support of the chiefs. The majority of chiefs in that region have always been passionate about education. They would literally go door to door checking if the children were at school and the family would be in trouble if the learners weren’t in class. To this day, the traditional and royal councils continue to actively participate in the education of the youth and most of the chiefs have university qualifications, including PhDs.
I have been looking into the history of schooling in this region that has produced a wealth of leading scientists, academics, engineers, doctors, lawyers, technicians, politicians, innovators and entrepreneurs, who have contributed immensely to the economy and development of South Africa. An article published by Azwihangwisi Muthivhi in the Journal of Education Vol 48 (2010), titled Ploughing New Fields of Knowledge: Culture and the Rise of Community Schooling in Venda, explains that the first community-controlled school in Venda was built at Sibasa in 1920 by Domba initiate girls on the site of their initiation activities.
The girls made the mud bricks for the construction of their school, named Camp School. Here, both girls and boys could practise their traditional culture and at the same time receive a good education.
Camp School was built as an alternative to the missionary schools, which required conversion to Christianity and denouncement of “heathen” traditional culture.
The new school pioneered what we now call decolonised education, where formal schooling and traditional culture were considered mutually inclusive. It attracted learners from all over Venda, with the chiefs encouraging their communities to send girls and boys to school.
The school grew into a system of junior and high schools. Of great significance is that these community schools were the only schools in Venda during this period to offer a science-based curriculum, which included maths, and this created the culture of achieving in these subjects.
The article goes on to say: “The apartheid government did not take kindly to the community schools in spite of their unquestionable successes in improving access to schooling for the majority of children in Venda and for promoting active involvement of parents in their children’s schooling. The apartheid government wanted to control, especially, what happens in the classrooms — the curriculum.”
For different ideological reasons, the apartheid government and the missionaries failed to provide a science-based curriculum to Venda children.
The government, for example, argued that the community schools did not have the capacity, such as qualified teachers and teaching resources such as the laboratories to offer such a curriculum effectively.
The period after 1955 saw the gradual takeover of community schools by the apartheid government. Despite the calculated and systematic attempt to undermine the culture of education and to make people feel they were less intelligent and incapable of achieving in maths and science or pursuing university studies, the chiefs, parents and educators continued to nurture the culture of learning and teaching, including emphasising the importance of studying maths and science.
The teachers themselves continue learning, and many of the educators in the Vhembe district are pursuing doctorates in the subjects they teach.
The principals rally behind their team in a culture of discipline and learning and, at the same time, the schools cherish their culture, offering traditional dance lessons and other cultural activities during breaks and as extra-mural activities.
The top matriculants from these schools are offered university placements and, because of the district’s track record, most universities go there to offer scholarships. Nelson Mandela University has attracted several top achievers from the region.
The university’s faculty of science regards engagement in maths and science with schools in our home province of the Eastern Cape, and nationally, as part of our mandate. We visit and host maths and science exhibitions, workshops and expos, and encourage parents and others to take an active interest in children’s education.
In partnership with the faculty of education and professional bodies such as the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) we are co-ordinating maths and science teacher development programmes in the Eastern Cape to advance their skills in teaching these critical subjects. We can already see the results in the province’s improved matric results.
In addition, I assist the SAIP with its national Physics Teacher Development Project and Outreach Programme in maths and physical science, focusing on the rural areas of South Africa.
This has started yielding results and most of the learners who do well in the South African Physics Olympiad follow maths and physical science career paths, which is exactly what South Africa needs.
In the absence of this, the likes of the 4IR, the Square Kilometre Array and other big scientific projects will become white elephants in terms of our homegrown brains trust, and the country will simply maintain the infrastructure for the rest of the world to make major discoveries. Or we can be up there ourselves.
Having worked in maths and science advancement for many years, I am motivated by what we can achieve in our schools and universities, despite the difficulties faced by many learners. The starting point is a culture of learning and teaching. It is essential to start nurturing it from today.
Professor Azwinndini Muronga is the executive dean of science at Nelson Mandela University