Speech by Naledi Pandor, MP, Minister of Education, opening AMESA conference, 1 July 2004

“Maths today and tomorrow”

Dr Setati, AMESA National President

Invited guests

Ladies and gentlemen


Mathematics and science have for a long time been a preserve of a select few. Many generations of young people have been denied access into these important subjects because of apartheid and because of the myth that one is born either with or without an ability to handle these subjects.

That myth has also shaped the fact that boys do better at maths than girls. But we are going to change the way we teach maths and we are going to change the outcomes so that girls do as well as boys in the fields of maths, science and technology.

I say this to you on the basis of a range of initiatives that the department has steered. In the course of getting to know my portfolio I have been made aware of various matters relevant to mathematics education. I have only recently discovered the difference between passing a course in maths (being numerate) and being able to say that I am mathematically literate. I think I can say that I am the latter. I can work out VAT and complete a tax return. I can tell the difference between a certainty and a probability in percentage terms. I think I can say that I am mathematically literate, but I am not as numerate as I expect our pupils to be when they matriculate. Is it my fault or can I blame it on the maths teaching I received?

I want girls and boys to do well in maths. I particularly want girls to do well in maths, because it is not only highly regarded as a subject, but also because maths teaches other skills that are essential for success in many sectors of the economy. A maths pass in matric and a maths degree at university are extremely useful. Maths opens many doors: academia, high-tech industries, physics, science and finance all draw on mathematical expertise. Most importantly, many institutions employ mathematicians because of their skills in analytical problem solving.

I want girls and boys to think of maths as cool.

I want numeracy to be at the heart of everything we do.

I want our learners to do maths because we know from research around the world that maths graduates are more certain to be employed than non-maths graduates and that they will earn more or develop careers that allow them to be independent entrepreneurs.

Our maths and science strategy

My aim as Minister of Education is to facilitate conditions in which children realise their full potential, particularly those born to people previously disadvantaged by state policy. I have no intention of chasing shadows at the margins of our education system. I intend operating right at the centre, where our interventions will matter most.

In this regard, I shall be paying very close attention to previously ignored areas that are necessary for improved outcomes among all learners but especially those from previously marginalized communities. These include mathematics, science and technology education, improved teaching of indigenous languages, and improved teaching of English as a second language - the language issue is a seamless one.

I want to acknowledge work done by my predecessors in attempting to address this neglect. In particular, I wish to build on the work done on the SYSTEM (Students and Youth into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) project, the pilot project on Technology Education, Technology 2005, and the National Mathematics, Science and Technology Education Strategy, which was revised and adopted by the Cabinet early this year.

Most of you here will know our national strategy. Some of you assisted in defining what it should be. So I will not repeat it in detail. Suffice it to say that our National Strategy identified three key thrusts, namely, to raise participation and performance by historically disadvantaged learners in Senior Certificate Mathematics and Physical Science; to improve on the number and quality of teachers of mathematics, science and technology; and to provide high quality mathematics, science and technology education from grade 1 to grade 12.

Since we adopted the National Strategy, we have made good progress towards achieving our goals. First, we established 102 dedicated Mathematics and Science secondary schools in order to increase participation in these subjects and improve student performance.

Second, over the past three years the number of students taking Mathematics and Science in Grade 12 has improved. Despite a decrease in the total number of students writing the Senior Certificate in the past three years, the number of students enrolled in Mathematics Higher Grade increased from 25 384 in 2001 to 28 693 in 2003, the number in Mathematics Standard Grade increased from 97 765 to 123 212. In Physical Science Higher Grade, the number increased from 35 454 in 2001 to 40 004 in 2003, while in Physical Science Standard Grade the number of students rose from 70 098 in 2001 to 81 943 in 2003.

Third, we have seen a steady increase in the number of students passing mathematics and science. What is more pleasing about this is that schools from the most remote of areas have been consistently counted among the best performing mathematics and science schools in the country. The example set by schools like Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo and Mathenjwa Secondary School in KwaZulu-Natal is now being followed by a larger number of schools.

Challenges ahead

Despite these successes the reality is that too few black pupils pass mathematics in the higher grade. In the Western Cape, for example, only 30 black pupils passed mathematics in the higher grade last year and coloured learners did not do much better. The Western Cape government has set aside R1 million for bursaries to train 50 maths teachers.

While this sort of remedial action is critical, there is more that the community of maths educators must do to improve the teaching of maths in our schools. We need to embed an appreciation of numbers and shapes into our culture of learning. We need to show our children that understanding maths makes life easier and that finding maths impenetrable makes life hard. We neglect numeracy at our peril. Real numeracy problems are not being able to understand the dial on your stove when you have a family to feed. Or to tell the time when you have a job interview to attend. Or being charged illegal interest by a loan shark. At the other end of the scale, numeracy is essential in the choices our people need to make in a democracy. How can you understand inflation, national debt, national targets or national budgets without the ability to compute. So we need to embed an understanding and love of maths at an early age. It is much more difficult for children of parents whose lives were impaired by the apartheid educational system. Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers. If parents are innumerate or lack confidence in mathematical skills, it can have a negative effect on the educational development of children. Innumeracy and poverty reinforce one another. We need to break that vicious circle. We need to embed a love of maths in all our young children.

We intend consolidating the efforts made thus far in improving the teaching of mathematics, science and technology in our schools. Not only will we continue supporting the 102 Mathematics and Science focus schools, we will also provide the resources necessary for the proper teaching and learning of these subjects in many more schools at both primary and secondary levels. In this regard, about 1000 rural and under-resourced primary schools in the nodal districts have been provided with science kits containing basic equipment and chemicals.

I notice that one parent wrote to the Daily Sun (28 June 2004) with the request for a maths kit. This is what she said: “Please will someone help my daughter. She is struggling to understand mathematics although she likes it very much. She is in Grade 10 at the moment. … I can’t help her because I did not do maths at school and financially I cannot afford to send her to extra classes. I think it would be good if we could get some study kit which can guide us. N.J. Kabokweni.”

If N. J. Kabokweni lived in the Western Cape, and had a child in primary school in that province she would have had some certainty of help. This is what MEC Dugmore said in this budget speech this month: “The department has introduced 100 books in every primary school classroom, setting aside 30 minutes every day for reading, to encourage learners to read at least 100 books a year, and we are supporting numeracy teaching by providing schools with specially designed maths and science education kits.”

Ms Kabokweni raises a critical issue. She is not able to help her daughter because she did not do maths and because she cannot pay for extra-school help. Another parent, Claudia D’Alebout, is in a similar situation. She said: “It’s not difficult to understand their homework, it’s impossible. I matriculated in 1970. I don’t know what these equations mean.” The solution on offer to her, according to a report in the Sunday Times (27 June 2004) under the headline “Teachers on Call”, is to make use of a national dial-a-teacher service, the brain child of a former Ms South Africa. The reason for the establishment of this service is apparently that parents are no longer able to assist their children with their homework. Well, the majority of parents in our country have never been able to assist. This is a service that is provided to pupils whose parents are employees of certain companies or members of executive groups. It is a service that is provided to those, unlike N.J. Kabokweni, who are already members of the middle class.

Our interventions in mathematics, science and technology education should gradually improve the performance of poor and marginalised learners in general, and girls in particular. As I have said before, I want to see more girls gaining access to careers in the sciences, technology and engineering, and we can only achieve this goal if we provide girls with a solid foundation in these areas at school level.

In supporting these efforts, we will require that the reading materials supplied to schools be of high quality and be in line with our policy. This requires that we strengthen our procurement processes to ensure that appropriate indigenous language materials are produced and selected.

We take multi-lingualism and the effective use of a language of learning as important articles of faith. The new National Curriculum Statement has re-developed all our languages as vehicles for placing greater cognitive demands on our learners. Not only will our languages be concerned with cultural issues, they will also develop ways of thinking and help form foundational competences among our learners.

Teacher Development

In closing let me say a few words about teacher development. As you know we need to improve teacher development programmes in order to be more successful in the teaching of maths and science. In a recent book about research into improving learning, researchers report that during interviews with teachers from successful schools, success was attributed overwhelmingly to staff factors. “When asked why they thought students might fail, 80,5% put this down to student factors, and only 1.2% thought it might be due to poor teaching” (Getting Learning Right, 2003, p. 138).

The study also reports that in two studies of mathematics teaching at grade four level, teachers were found to use mathematically incorrect or inappropriate language. “Setati reports that the teachers frequently committed significant systematic errors in the way in which they used the formal mathematical register. For example, in demonstrating an expanded method for division, the teacher made the same error a number of times. When the researcher pointed this out to her in private, the teacher corrected the error, but did not explain the change to the class” (Ibid, p. 139).

In order to ensure that our policies are effective at classroom level, we have to strengthen our efforts in teacher training and development. We have provided bursaries for students wishing to become teachers of Science and Mathematics through the National Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). We hope that the NSFAS funding will attract a greater number of Mathematics and Science graduates to make teaching their first choice career. Given the critical importance of these disciplines we will also need to determine incentives for recruiting and retaining persons with these skills.

In this regard, we intend to finalise a National Framework on Teacher Education by the end of 2004. This framework, which is long overdue, will provide us with a clear platform for engaging teaching education agencies, especially Higher Education institutions. It will also clarify the role of provincial and district officials in the continuing professional development and the ongoing support of teachers.

We will also be working hard to forge greater links and partnerships with Higher Education institutions, especially Faculties of Education. This will allow us to develop a common vision of the kind of teacher envisaged for the implementation of the National Curriculum Statement.

Original at Department of Education