Why do South African students fare worse at maths than their counterparts in other countries?
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South African students are bad at maths compared to other countries. This is clear from results of South African learners in the International Mathematics and Science Study. The results show that South Africa’s performance is far from competitive in relation to other countries.
To try and understand the reasons for this poor performance, I did a qualitative case study focusing on a year-long post graduate course taken by aspiring teachers. I focused particularly on a Post Graduate Certificate in Education with a maths focus offered by one of the country’s university of technologies.
I looked at three key themes – the curriculum and its delivery, partnerships during delivery and policy influencing delivery. My research findings show that the success of the Post Graduate Certificate in Education in preparing maths teachers is not without concern and its delivery, in the case study context, needs rethinking.
My findings underscore earlier research that has suggested that a shortage of competent and confident qualified mathematics teachers is a key contributing factor to the low maths performance of South African school children.
The one-year Post Graduate Certificate in Education offered at South African universities is a key qualification for aspiring teachers. This is taken after completing a diploma or degree in other fields such as engineering, business and hospitality. It offers an opportunity to university graduates to become a professionally qualified teacher in one-year instead of pursuing a career in industry.
My research highlights the constraints identified by students and lecturers of the post graduate certificate programme, in particular as it relates to the teaching of maths.
The first constraint I identified involved inadequate support structures as well as information, communication and technology infrastructure to meaningfully support the ever-increasing numbers of students taking up the course. The numbers have grown exponentially – from 10 in 1994 to 100 in 2014 and then 207 in 2015. In short, the university has been expected to do more with less.
The second constraint I identified was a potential over reliance on using Bachelors in Education content designed to be delivered over four years. This was evident from the statements from lecturers clarifying how they identify and select content to present during lectures.
This is a constraint as the four year Bachelors in Education content is not always suitable for the Post Graduate Certificate in Education context. This indicates a need to develop context specific content to make the best of the one-year post graduate certificate.
The third constraint was a limited partnership to develop professional learning communities. These should ideally involve lecturers and students, university representatives evaluating students during compulsory classroom teaching periods and the teachers in schools hosting students.
The main reason for this constraint appeared to be that most lecturers were part-time as the course was offered in the afternoon or evening. This meant that lecturers and students had limited time to engage. This affected the outcomes and the quality of the course.
Another outcome from the lack of engagement between the part-time lecturers was that lecturers duplicated content offered in other programme modules. Students and graduates noted this as one of their main concerns. Unnecessary duplication is a major problem because the post graduate certificate programme has a limited time-frame of just one year.
The fourth and final constraint was a lack of oversight over university policy stipulations linked to the delivery and assessment of the post graduate qualification.
For example, university policy stipulates that an assessment plan, programme and calendar must be provided to students. Such a document wasn’t provided to students as noted during interviews. Policy also stipulates that students must re-do practical teaching if they miss more than five days during the study period. One student noted that he was absent for a whole week during this period and no one noticed. He was awarded a pass for practical teaching.
My research found that lecturers didn’t follow all the university’s policies. This suggested that they weren’t being monitored by the relevant authorities. This lack of oversight by the university is clearly a major problem.
I conclude from my findings that, to become confident and competent maths teachers, graduates who have passed the Post Graduate Certificate in Education need further development and support. If this isn’t provided, South Africa is unlikely to see an improvement in the performance of its school children.
*Jacques Verster: Doctoral candidate Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology.