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SA experts warn that mathematics is in crisis after release of matric stats

Of the almost 600 000 candidates who wrote matric in 2020, a meagre 5.3% scored 60% or more for mathematics. Picture: Thomas Holder/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Of the almost 600 000 candidates who wrote matric in 2020, a meagre 5.3% scored 60% or more for mathematics. Picture: Thomas Holder/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Jan 19, 2022

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Cape Town - Of the almost 600 000 candidates who wrote matric in 2020, a meagre 5.3% scored 60% or more for mathematics.

The required pass rate is just 30% – something that only 125 526 candidates achieved.

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That led to experts believing that maths is in crisis as it is a gateway subject for higher education and career options which are vital for any country’s economic development and growth. It remains to be seen whether the class of 2021’s results will be any better.

Gerda van der Merwe from the online maths tutoring platform, YouCanDoMaths, released an analysis of the reasons many learners grapple with maths, often turning to maths literacy as an “easier option”.

ANC provincial spokesperson for education, Khalid Sayed, said they have witnessed a disturbing trend in the Western Cape, the uptake and pass rate of maths and physical science have been on the decline for every year in the last five years.

"We do not know the reasons for this, we continue to make calls for an investigation into this challenge," said Sayed.

He called on the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) to consider providing a budget to involve more maths and science tutors in the schools in a bid to help remedy the situation.

Education MEC Debbie Schäfer's spokesperson, Kerry Mauchline, said they were hoping for a further improvement in maths results.

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"We had the highest mathematics pass rate in the country in the 2020 NSC (National Senior Certificate), as this is a strategic focus for the WCED and our province," said Mauchline.

She said they were using a variety of mechanisms to improve performance, from training and mentoring teachers, to providing subject-specific enrichment resources for learners.

Stellenbosch University’s curriculum studies department chairperson, Professor Michael le Cordeur, said the problem was not maths itself but the teaching by teachers who themselves grapple with principles.

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"What we need is a whole new approach to the teaching of maths where maths is portrayed as an asset and not something to be scared of," said Le Cordeur.

UWC Education faculty’s deputy dean of research, Rouaan Maarman, said some factors ranged from the training and qualifications of maths teachers, teaching methodologies, curriculum sequencing to overcrowded classrooms in the foundation phase where proper consolidation cannot take place.

Maarman said those factors have a compounding effect over time as learners move through the grades and by high school many learners just did not have the required competency to do maths.

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"I think that a Basic Education summit is long overdue to address the state of the sector. At the moment we move from one crisis to the next and implement knee-jerk responses when we are embarrassed by the outcomes of the system," he said.

Van der Merwe said the truth was that to do well at maths, learners needed to practise, and not just at exam times.

She said attending only maths classes at school was often not enough time for most learners to grasp key concepts.

She said big classes mean less teacher-learner time and unfortunately, the pandemic has resulted in even less class time which further impacted learners’ access to teachers.

"Many would benefit from extra time to revise lessons and absorb key theories at their own pace,” said Van der Merwe.

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