South Africa’s Math Education is A Key to Economic Success”

OPINION: The trajectory of the BRICS bloc will be guided by those who prioritise, invest in, and secure a robust Mathematical foundation for their youth — a lesson South Africa should heed.

By Alison Scott – Executive Principal of Bellavista School


In the aftermath of the BRICS summit, it is imperative for South African policymakers to confront the stark reality of their nation’s contribution to the economic ambitions of the participating members.


As it stands, a critical evaluation of our Mathematics education system reveals a deficiency that could undermine our potential role in the economic strategies of this emerging alliance.

The trajectory of the BRICS bloc will be guided by those who prioritise, invest in, and secure a robust Mathematical foundation for their youth — a lesson South Africa should heed.


The Significance of Mathematics

Napoleon’s astute observation that “The advancement and perfection of Mathematics are intimately connected with the prosperity of the State” resonates strongly today. History illustrates that even oppressive regimes, such as South Africa’s National Party, recognised the potential impact of Mathematics education on the future career prospects of individuals.


In a cruel and calculated move, the architects of apartheid enacted the harsh Bantu Education Act of 1953, intentionally limiting high-level mathematical proficiency to a select few, thereby denying hope and opportunity to the majority.

Professor Jonathan Jansen underscores the intrinsic value of Mathematics in his commemorative address to Helen Suzman, OBE, stating, “Mathematics guides our counting and calculations, measurement and anticipation, earnings and expenditures, fostering in us values essential for democracy — discovery, invention, concentration, alternative solutions, patience, perseverance, discipline, logic, order, and economy.”

Facing the Reality

South Africa’s standing in Mathematics and Science education rankings is a pressing concern. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Indices consistently place the country at the bottom among 140 nations in terms of education quality. While the WEF rankings have faced criticism for their methodology, it is undeniable that our educational standards need improvement.


The Sacmeq study, which evaluates Grade 6 students across sub-Saharan Africa, positioned South Africa in eighth place. While this is a better showing than on the WEF scale, it remains far from satisfactory.


The 2019 TIMMS assessment showed that South African Grade 9 learners scored 370 points — the lowest among participants. Merely 15% reached an intermediate level, 5% attained high benchmark scores, and a mere 1% performed at an advanced level. This stark contrast against countries like Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong, who reach scores above 600 on the same scale, highlights our educational deficit on the global stage.


The Alarming Matric Picture

The Grade 12 Mathematics pass rate set at 30% reflects an alarming standard the education department sets for itself. In 2021, out of 750,478 Matric enrollees, only 35% attempted the final Mathematics exam, with a mere 20% passing. A meagre 5% achieved 60% or higher. These disheartening statistics underscore the far-reaching implications of our education system’s failure on individuals and the nation as a whole.


To enable South African professionals — be it in business, science, engineering, software development, or medicine — to effectively compete on the global stage, proficiency in Mathematics and Science is imperative.


Unravelling the Dilemma

Contrary to misconceptions, the challenge lies not in funding, as South Africa allocates around 6% of GDP to education annually. The root cause is the quality of education. A critical examination reveals that the issue can be traced back to teachers and their training.


Reluctantly, the analysis seldom scrutinises teacher proficiency in Mathematics. It begs the question — why the reluctance?


Identifying this benchmark for teacher development could prove pivotal in rectifying the issue, subsequently leading to improved outcomes as educators acquire the necessary skills and expertise.


A Beacon of Hope

While our curriculum holds potential, our pass rate remains sub-par, and the effective utilisation of resources continues to falter. We must introspect and consider whether the youth of our nation can meaningfully engage in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) without a robust educational foundation. Bemoaning the annual matric results, infrequent TIMMS assessments, or sporadic WEF measurements is insufficient.


Each passing evaluation further perpetuates a cycle of failure for new generations. The dire need for mathematical pedagogy training for teachers is evident and urgent.


In Conclusion

The state of Mathematics education in South Africa demands immediate attention. The BRICS alliance offers a promising avenue for economic growth, and South Africa must position itself as a valuable contributor. Investing in quality Mathematics education is the surest route to realising this potential. As we stand at the precipice of a new world order, our nation’s success hinges on equipping its youth with the tools to shape their future career paths. The time for transformative change is now.

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