Submission by the Mathematics Education Community to the Council of Education Ministers (CEM)

This submission was prepared by, and on behalf of, Mathematics educators from a range of institutions including NGOs and teacher education organisations (hereafter referred to as the Mathematics Education Community) at the invitation of the Honourable Minister of Education: Prof. K. Asmal.

There exists a crisis in Mathematics education in South Africa. The purpose of this submission is

  • to outline and define the crisis and
  • to make suggestions regarding the role of both National and Provincial governments in addressing the crisis.

The Crisis

At the heart of economic stability, growth and the effective functioning of a democracy lies this Nation’s need for:

  • Numerically literate citizens able to engage with and understand Mathematics as it touches their daily lives. This vision is well captured by the Curriculum 2005 literature.
  • A numerically literate workforce. In all science and technology related careers in industry, mathematics is the key that opens doors. People are employed for their ability to solve problems and to contribute through careful analysis to the production process.
  • A growing community of Mathematicians able to develop the knowledge base of Mathematics and to train future generations of experts in the field and work in mathematically related scientific and industrial enterprises.

It goes without saying that we are, as a Nation, far from achieving this ideal.

There are five key dimensions to the crisis that we would like to explore:

  1. Success rate of Matriculation candidates in Mathematics.
  2. Mathematics Teachers
  3. Impoverished view of mathematics
  4. Under utilised resources
  5. Regarding Mathematics Education as a priority

1. Success rate of Matriculation candidates in Mathematics.

While it seems superfluous to remind the Council that matriculation performance in Mathematics is way below that of any other subject both in terms of participation and success, it is important to recognise that these figures are not improving. A comparison of participation and performance in matriculation Mathematics over the last few years indicates quite clearly that the situation is deteriorating.

… it is noted that Mathematics has the lowest pass rate of 43,4% (Graph 10). This refers to the combined pass rate for higher and standard grade. The national pass rate for Mathematics in 1996 was 49,5% and it dropped in 1997 by 3,2% to 46,3%. In 1998 it dropped further by 4,2% to 42,1%.

However, it is encouraging to note that there has been an increase in national pass rate for Mathematics from 42,1 in 1998 to 43,4 in 1999.

(Report on the 1999 Senior Certificate Examination:

While these statistics are disturbing enough, they hide some of the even more disastrous realities of our time. Realities such as the fact that less that 1% of African matriculation candidates achieve A or B symbols for Mathematics Higher Grade. This is without even beginning to consider rural schools and female students.

While there is always a danger in linking apparently unrelated statistics without careful analysis, it is nonetheless noteworthy that South Africa came last of the participating countries in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and our performance (placement) on the world competitive index has also dropped in the last few years. We believe that for South Africa to become a more competitive nation there will have to be a dramatic improvement in both success and participation by students in Mathematics.

2. Mathematics Teachers

When discussing the role of the teacher in the crisis, one runs the danger of "blaming" the teacher. This is not our intention here. However, to fail to acknowledge that the majority of our teaching force (through no "fault" of their own) is poorly equipped to perform their role would also be inappropriate. Due mainly to the academic poverty of the schools and colleges set up by the apartheid system to present a semblance of schooling for all, the majority of teachers do not understand and cannot make sense of the mathematics they have to teach. The extent of this impoverished subject and pedagogical "knowledge" is not fully appreciated (a national audit may be necessary to fully describe the status of teacher’s mathematical knowledge). As the practitioners on the ground, we the Mathematics Education Community are aware that even the majority of primary school teachers have a seriously impoverished understanding of Mathematics (the situation is no better for in the high schools). As long as teachers are left in this embarrassing situation, no amount of curriculum change, OBE, textbook provision or the improved management of schools will bring about any improvement in mathematics learning in this country—teachers can only teach what they know.

The teacher crisis is, however, not confined to the teacher’s knowledge-base. As a result of the redeployment and VSP programmes of the last few years, the most qualified and highly sought after Mathematics teachers have been lost to the education system. In addition well-qualified Mathematics teachers are continually being "poached" by industry and even foreign countries. The Employment Equity Bill has further contributed to the loss of well-qualified black teachers to industry.

We welcome the Skills Act and see it as a part of the solution to this crisis. However! Incorrect, inefficient and insufficient implementation of the Skills Act could deepen the crisis of the mathematics teacher force. Given the range of opportunities for students with an aptitude for Mathematics in industry and the generally poor view of education held by many, the profession is unable to attract members. This is well illustrated by the fact that in 1999 there were only 4 pre-service Mathematics student teachers in the post-graduate diploma programme at Wits and of about 300 post-graduate diploma students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) only one was in Mathematics.

The figures for other institutions are as troubling, and enrollments for 2000 appear to be as poor. At the University of Durban Westville (UDW) there are this year, for the first time, no students enrolled for the HDE programme with Mathematics as a specialist subject.

Any attempt to address the crisis in Mathematics will, therefore, have to confront both the quality and quantity of teachers. It goes without saying that any initiatives in this regard will clearly have to account for the anticipated impact of the HIV/Aids pandemic and as such build in certain degrees of excess.

3. Impoverished view of Mathematics

The words: "What is the use of teaching the Bantu child Mathematics?" uttered by Verwoerd in 1953 have made their impact not only on the type and quality of education that the majority of South Africans have experienced over the last 40 odd years but have also made an incredible impact on how most South Africans view Mathematics. There is a widespread and deeply internalised view that only a select few are capable of success in Mathematics. This impoverished view of Mathematics results in anxieties among students and parents and is accompanied by the acceptance that Mathematics is not "for everybody." Such perceptions wreak havoc with goals for a numerate, democratic society. Curriculum 2005 attempts to address issues of content in the current syllabi that act as barriers to participation by dealing with features such as relevance and application. Further work is needed in this regard in the FET band. Whatever the intentions behind curriculum change and however these are communicated, their impact will not be felt until the quality and quantity issues in the teaching force are addressed

4. Under utilised resources

Over the past 20 years or more years, in recognition of the damage done by apartheid education, Mathematics educators in the tertiary sector and NGOs, have developed, and continue to develop, formal and non-formal programmes dedicated to teachers’ professional development and the development of innovative curricula and learning materials.

The overall effect of these worthy programmes is ad hoc as initiatives are only able to reach already committed and relatively small numbers of teachers. Funding is not readily available and funders are seeking evidence of greater systemic impact before they commit large grants to new or continuing programmes. Moreover, as individual tertiary institutions struggle to keep up their students numbers, and NGOs struggle to keep and improve their funding bases, niche market philosophies and silent competition over students and teachers fragments and duplicates, rather than co-ordinate and maximise, the relatively scarce expertise and resources we have across institutions.

While there is a great amount of expertise within this community it is not co-ordinated or well utilised. It is the recommendation of the Mathematics Education Community to the Council that any attempt to address the crisis in Mathematics should utilise and co-ordinate this expertise and experience.

Another potentially under-utilised resource is the more than 30 doctoral students in Mathematics Education (currently funded by the NRF) who are in various stages of completing their doctoral programmes. Incentives could facilitate a process whereby the research of these students could contribute to and directly impact on the practice of teaching and performance of students.

The quantity and quality issues addressed in this submission make it obvious that a national strategy, of necessity, should include both Pre-set and INSET initiatives, and hence the involvement of and the co-ordination between both the National and Provincial Departments of Education. A national strategy also implies, a collaborative partnership between departments and institutions and organisations in the Mathematics education community.

5. Regarding Mathematics Education as a priority

It should be noted that mathematics acts as the filter for students progressing to higher levels of study. Almost without exception acceptance at a tertiary education institution requires a minimum qualification in standard grade mathematics. Poor and declining pass rates in mathematics has a dramatic domino effect both within and outside of the education system. Failure to prioritise mathematics education will undermine economic stability, growth and the effective functioning of a democracy.

A Strategy For Dealing With the Crisis.

A strategy for dealing with the crisis, as described above, follows. In this strategy we first describe features of the strategy and finally suggest roles for both the National and Provincial Departments of Education.

1. Success rate of Matriculation candidates in Mathematics

Any programme of action intended to address the crisis must include as a priority improving matriculation results and participation in Mathematics. Matriculation results are the only national measure of educational performance that we currently have. One aspect of an intervention strategy could include the introduction of earlier measures (including the proposed GETC) to assess learning in Mathematics so that earlier intervention can be affected to reduce the loss of students to the subject.

An aspect of a strategy, in the short term, could be for the Departments of Education to harness all resources available to them to improve the learning of Mathematics by students in those schools where the results are known to be particularly poor. Such efforts could include using university and college students currently embarking on studies in Mathematics to present Saturday and holiday classes for high school students, the re-appointment of teachers previously declared "in excess" to work in these schools, and the introduction of holiday institutes to assist the teachers in these school to prepare for the more effective teaching of Mathematics.

2. Mathematics Teachers

The focus of any efforts by the Departments of Education needs to be the teachers. In the long run the resolution of the crisis lies in improving the cadre of Mathematics teachers in South Africa. Whatever strategy is adopted, teachers need both improved Mathematical content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge and, while both are critical, the focus of intervention efforts should be on the content knowledge. There exists a very real danger that intervention programmes might focus on the pedagogical knowledge at the expense of content knowledge—that is because the pedagogical is, quite frankly, "easier" to teach. What teachers need is opportunities to deepen their understanding and sense of the mathematics that they teach.

An aspect of the strategy may be for the Departments of Education to mandate that (in the case of teachers of Mathematics) at least half of the mandatory 80 hours of annual in-service training is devoted to Mathematical content knowledge. In the case of FDE programmes and other teacher accreditation programmes, the Departments of Education could make accreditation contingent on at least 60% of the programme being devoted to mathematical study, which should include effective opportunities for participants to develop a sound cognitive and contextual understanding of the Mathematics they will teach at school.

A strategy will also have to address ways of attracting to and retaining within the profession, well-qualified and enthusiastic teachers. There is much that will have to be done in this regard.

3. Impoverished view of Mathematics

Mathematics needs to be "opened-up" and demystified. While the Specific Outcomes of the MLMMS programme in Curriculum 2005 go a long way to addressing this matter, the success of Curriculum 2005 is dependent on teachers. A strategy adopted by the Departments of Education will have to recognise that in comparison with previous curricula teachers of Curriculum 2005 need a better subject knowledge and a far better understanding of the Mathematical content to be able to make a success of the curriculum. It is quite clear that a strategy that deals with matters of teacher readiness also needs to address matters of making Mathematics relevant and accessible to those who participate in the learning programmes.

4. Under utilised resources

The strategy adopted by the Departments of Education in addressing the crisis should recognise the vast resources that have already been devoted to the problem, albeit in an un-coordinated and possibly ad hoc manner. The strategy would have to acknowledge and utilise the wide range of expertise available and harness the energy of this sector of the community in developing a solution together with provincial and national departments.

5. Regarding Mathematics Education as a priority

It is the feeling of the Mathematics Education Community that the Departments of Education need to regard this crisis as a priority in their work and, in designing a strategy to attach a five-year time frame to making significant advances in addressing this problem. This time frame should have measurable outcomes with consequent action plans if the outcomes have not been achieved.

The Role of the National and Provincial Governments

Education is both a National Government and Local Government competency. If, however, the two levels of government do not co-ordinate their efforts there exists a very good chance that not much will change. We would like to suggest the following actions by each branch of government:

1. National Department of Education

We would like to recommend that the National Department of Education:

  • Publicly declare Mathematics Education to be in crisis, earmarking and releasing funds to address the matter.
  • Call a National summit that will focus on Mathematics (not subsuming the subject into or with others e.g. Science and Technology) before June 2000 and task this summit to agree on National outcomes for development and to agree on a basis for the development of intervention programmes. It is assumed that all provincial Departments of Education will be represented at this summit and that the decisions taken at the summit will be binding on the provinces.

2. Provincial Departments of Education

We would like to recommend that the Provincial Departments of Education:

  • Publicly declare Mathematics Education to be in crisis, earmarking and releasing funds to address the matter.
  • Establish a numeracy strategy for Grades 0 to 9.
  • Establish meaningful in-service programmes at District Level that take into account the issues already described in this submission.
  • Set provincial targets and establish strategies at District level together with necessary support structures.
  • Strategise to attract teachers to the profession and improve matriculation results.

March 2000


Prepared by:

Jill Adler
University of the Witswatersrand
Private Bag 3, P O Wits, 2050
Tel (011) 716-2854

Aarnout Brombacher
The Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa (AMESA)
94 Myburgh Road, Diepriver 7800
Tel (021) 715-6161/689-9154

Sharanjeet Shan
Mathematics Centre for Professional Teachers (MCPT)
P.O. Box 117, Auckland Park, 2006
Tel (011) 726-4237


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