Teachers are key to solving SA schools' maths woes

Posted on February 01, 2016

A report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the end of 2014, ranked South Africa’s mathematics education last out of 148 countries. The WEF’s 2014 Global Information Technology Report also ranked South Africa 146th for the overall quality of its education, below a host of other African countries. Only Yemen (147th) and Libya (148th) received lower rankings. The South African National Department of Basic Education was not pleased with this report and in their press release dismissed it as ‘not a credible or accurate reflection of the state of education in South Africa’.

The report was prepared by consulting with around 50 South African business leaders to score maths education from poor to excellent. Their responses were then weighted according the contributions to the country’s GDP of each of the four main economic sectors: agriculture, manufacturing industry, non-manufacturing industry and services. The South African National Department of Basic Education did not agree with these results, stating that there were no standardised tests conducted. In 2007, comprehensive testing was also done by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), where students answered multiple-choice questions on reading and mathematics. Countries represented were Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. South Africa’s average student maths score placed it eighth out of the fifteen countries. Mozambique, Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia scored lower than South Africa in this SACMEQ test. Disturbingly, the National Department of Basic Education’s own most recent academic assessments showed that only 3% of Grade 9 pupils had achieved more than 50% in mathematics.

According to Dr Sonja van Putten, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria, this is largely due to a shortage of specialist mathematics teachers in South Africa. She commented that, despite the fact that 36 951 teachers were appointed to vacant posts over the last couple of years, 34 383 posts remained unfilled. According to an April 2013 press release by the South African Institute of Race Relations, more than 84 schools countrywide did not offer mathematics in the Further Education and Training phase because there were simply not enough suitably qualified mathematics teachers to teach those classes. 

Dr Van Putten became aware of the need to investigate mathematics education as a career choice when she was doing research on Professional Mathematics Teacher Identity (PMTI). She said: ‘It became clear that the choice to embark upon studies as a teacher of mathematics was intertwined with the person's professional identity. Therefore, investigating career choice in this regard would not only broaden my understanding of PMTI, it would also give me a clear indication of the driving factors that bring young people into our Faculty and, more precisely, into mathematics education.’

Her study confirmed that mathematics education in South Africa indeed faces a serious problem. This is apparently largely due to many teachers failing to teach adequately, which in turn results in learners failing to perform. The study makes the assumption that the poor quality of mathematics education in South Africa is at least partially the result of a shortage of qualified, competent mathematics teachers and that it is primarily the teachers who shape the learning context and have an influence on what is being taught and learned.

Dr Van Putten’s research is on-going and with the link between career choice and PMTI clearly established, she hopes to be able to identify the factors that influence that career choice. Once these factors are identified, they can be used to both consolidate and affirm the career choice of those students who are already in the system as pre-service mathematics teachers, or to promote and enhance the effect of these factors at the school level in order to increase the number of students who enter the system with a view to teaching mathematics.

Dr Van Putten believes that an increase in the number of tertiary students training to be mathematics teachers would contribute greatly towards solving the problem. She also believes that training must become viable and relevant so that students leaving university can immediately move into the classroom with confidence and succeed. ‘Education, particularly mathematics education, must once again become a sought-after career, instead of a fall-back when other disciplines reject the aspirant student,’ she said.  


- Author Myan Subrayan

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