This year’s national matric pass rate marks the achievement of a significant milestone for public education. The class of 2019 has achieved unprecedented results despite the challenges of the limited resources, appalling drop-out rates, poor learning infrastructure and lack of facilities faced by the country’s education system.
The results announced on Tuesday by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga are a testimony to those dedicated teachers who dutifully go about their huge daily task of guiding young people to one day be able to take advantage of future opportunities to be key players in the economic mainstream of the country. It also demonstrates the level of dedication of matriculants – supported by communities, parents and civil society – as well as their acumen in harnessing digital space, media and information to help them achieve the successes we celebrate today.
Many factors contributed to this achievement. Supporting programmes such as extra classes during holidays and hands-on learning materials, among others, account for the effective delivery of the some curriculum assessment policy statements.
However, there are no grounds for complacency. The fact that the mathematics pass rate slipped from 58% in 2018 to 54.6% last year should sound alarm bells.
Mathematics remains one of the leading instructional offerings in our vastly competitive society, as it helps to develop the analytical mind and reveals hidden patterns that assist us to understand our complex world. The underpinnings of everyday life are rapidly becoming increasingly mathematical and technological. In other words, maths and technology are becoming inextricable as we approach the fourth industrial revolution.
Reading, writing and arithmetic – the three Rs – have historically been at the core of schooling. Looking at how badly our arithmetic rates fall short compared to other African countries is worrisome. Adding insult to injury is the quality of mathematics taught in our education system, as it was lowered intentionally to reduce the risk of failure for the majority of children.
We should ask ourselves why children are left with such limited numerical competencies in the modern knowledge-driven global community. And at what cost does this failure of the system come?
There is a widely shared view that inculcating basic arithmetic skills at primary school level is a crucial strategy to enable learners to master mathematics, science and accounting at secondary level.
Regrettably, primary schools at this juncture are failing to lay solid educational foundations with regard to numeracy and literacy. The damage done to our children in the context of mathematical education is immense. Even in primary schools it is becoming increasingly difficult to find quality mathematics and science education.
The supply of secondary school teachers of mathematics and science is at a critical level. There is a huge shortage of teachers in these subjects and projections based on enrolments of student teachers are alarming.
The few educators of science and mathematics who are in the system can now command a premium, indicating how acute the national shortage of these teachers is. Pupils are disaffected and no longer value maths-based careers. Instead, they are dazzled by commercial and other studies, and the signal of crashing stock prices has not yet choked such demand.
All this is proof of the existence of a plethora of predicaments that hinder pupils from receiving top-notch mathematics education.
Another stumbling block to better maths performance – especially at the level where proper foundations for teaching and learning are supposed to be laid – is in part the result of inappropriate current government policy, which stipulates that pupils may only be held back once per education phase. This imperative compels schools to promote pupils to the next grade without them meeting the requisite mathematics requirements and without having arithmetic competencies as demanded by the curriculum.
One of the other fundamental errors of our public schools is the failure to have coherent and systemic plans to assist pupils to make the right choices in terms of optional subjects they are competent in when they get to Grade 10. There is an illogical arrangement and incorrect combination of alternative subjects, most of which do not correlate with or complement each other.
As long as pupils are compelled to pursue mathematics without possessing the fundamental arithmetic background and prowess, maths performance at matric level will proceed to sink deeper into the quagmire.
Another challenge we face within the broader schooling system is how to close the glaring achievement gap between pupils who write the Independent Examination Board (IEB) exams and those writing the National Senior Certificate (NCS) exams, which generally shows learners from public schools to be approximately three years behind their IEB counterparts in terms of numeracy and literacy.
The gap emerged before these pupils entered into the system based on socioeconomic status. These challenges have become more acute, and can only be resolved if a great deal of effort is put into building and fixing our public schools to bring them on par with private schools.
In conjunction with government and institutions of higher learning, strong interventions have to be considered to provide teachers with the necessary skills and resources. The basic education department in particular ought to devise strategies and set goals for quantifiable improvement in this vital area of learning.
Furthermore, the department should pay more attention to the quality of leadership in our schools, which appears to be teetering on the edge. I firmly believe that the performance of pupils is strongly associated with the role of principals, teachers and parents. Teacher performance and quality school leadership are the key variables to success in improving the quality of performance in mathematics and science we need today.
Finally, the department needs to implement the training programme in such a way that it builds the necessary pedagogic knowledge content and strengthens the teachers in other areas such as science, mathematics and accounting, and possibly technology information. These projects should target Grade 7 through to Grade 9.
The road towards quality education is a slippery one. It is a long road that calls for well-informed collaboration between schools, teachers, communities, parents and civil society. It is critical for government to not only develop world-class policies, but also to have the skills and expertise to implement them.
- Ncobela is a lecturer and columnist
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