Jenna Lowe and Lethu Ntshinga from Herschel Girls School congratulate each other after receiving awards for their matric results. Herschel obtained a 100 percent pass rate and a 100 percent bachelor degree pass.

Almost every matriculant at this school cracked fully-fledged maths. Murray Williams asks the principal how they did it.

Cape Town - As the year 2014 staggers to its feet, many feel a weariness in the air, centred almost entirely on the economy. On what is its failure to deliver. Most acutely, for our most vulnerable citizens, its failure to yield new jobs.

Last May, Clem Sunter wrote on News24: “The only real job creator around is small business and ushering in a new generation of entrepreneurs.

“To create 11 million jobs by 2030 and bring our unemployment rate down to 6 percent will require the establishment and nurturing of at least another two million businesses. That should be our prime target because nothing else can provide a permanent solution.

“We have 15.5 million citizens on welfare and we should do everything to turn at least 10 to 20 percent of them into entrepreneurs.

“As Steve Biko said: ‘Handouts do not improve your self-esteem: doing it for yourself does.’ “

But the question has always been: How? Possible answers are usually complex, fraught and contested. Like labour laws and tax relaxations.

But a fact this week lit a flame of hope.

Herschel Girls School obtained a 100 percent pass rate and a 100 percent bachelor degree pass. Excellent. But here’s the real magic: 93.6 percent of their matriculants passed maths. The remaining 6.4 percent passed maths literacy.

Maths’ crucial relevance to our nation’s future is common cause. So the fact that almost every matriculant at this school cracked fully-fledged maths is groundbreaking.

It was worth asking Herschel principal Stuart West precisely how they achieved this coup.

“The mathematics classes are streamed and the weakest sets are kept very small (10 to 12 girls) so they receive intensive tuition,” he said.

Can more pupils succeed in maths than we tend to believe?

“Yes, we have proved this over the years, although we also have to be aware of adding unnecessary stress in the case of candidates who do not find mathematics as easy as some others do.

“Therefore we do allow girls to change to mathematical literacy, after extensive discussion regarding their tertiary study and career plans. We have more assessments than the basic departmental requirements. Included in these are three tutorials in which girls are required to work through six exam papers on which they are tested.

“All maths teachers offer after-school help desks. This gives the girls six times each week in which extra assistance is available. We try to focus on teaching problem-solving skills from Grade 8 upwards.

“The girls have an extremely well-developed work ethic. We also peer-tutor Langa High Grade 12 pupils several afternoons a term. The girls who volunteer to be peer tutors benefit greatly in their own mathematical understanding and confidence.

“Our ethos in the mathematics classroom is to build confidence, and as teachers we make a concerted effort to encourage girls to ask questions without fear of humiliation. We try to make our classrooms a safe environment where we understand the natural anxiety that many pupils have with regard to this subject.”

West added that he hoped this explanation clarified my thinking.

It does more than that – it means there is hope.

Herschel kids are no smarter than anywhere else. But the teaching seems to be.

West’s explanation means that with the right resources, every school could achieve the same – 93.6 percent of matric candidates taking and passing maths.

It’s a truly revolutionary thought. For if schools get maths right, they tend to ace the rest too. The impact on the future of this country, on this continent, could be profound.

* Murray Williams’s column Shooting from the Lip appears in the Cape Argus every Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @mwdeadline

Cape Argus