The World Economic Forum says South Africa has a severe shortage of teachers for crucial subjects such as maths and science. Picture: Supplied

Johannesburg - When it comes to maths and science education, compared to other countries South Africa is at the bottom of the pile, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Information Technology Report 2013.

Reasons for this range from teacher competency, the number of teachers available, to language barriers, among other issues.

A panel discussion was hosted by Neotel and the Mail & Guardian in Joburg last week to explore the issue and to asses whether the education system adequately prepared pupils for life.

Education analyst, Graeme Bloch, said before rushing to find “glib solutions” for poor academic performance in these subjects, basic questions had to be asked and it had to be accepted that there was a lot communities, parents, businesses and NGOs could do to improve the situation.

“We should stop looking for cheap and glib solutions, for example, how many teachers do we need? How many Zimbabweans are there? Can they speak the right language and will they have place to study in rural Transkei?

“We need a plan,” Bloch said.

A report by the Centre of Development and Enterprise published in September 2011 estimated that South Africa produced about 25 000 teacher a year. This was 15 000 short of the number needed, “particularly in scarce subjects such as maths, science, commerce and technology”.

Last month the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) revealed that 84 high schools didn’t offer maths for the Further Education and Training (FET) phase - grades 10 to 12 - “primarily as a result of a shortage of suitably qualified math teachers”.

“This accounts for 1.3 percent of all high schools (public and independent) that wrote the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam last year.

“Such schools will therefore offer only mathematical literacy as it is a requirement of the NSC for a pupil to take either (maths or maths lit),” the report found.

The report also discovered that more pupils were taking maths literacy compared to maths. In 2008, when the NSC curriculum was introduced, there were 35 000 more pupils who took maths than those who did maths literacy. Now this ratio has reversed: last year 65 000 more pupils took maths literacy than those who took maths.

Apart from the fact that maths literacy is considerably easier than maths - prompting pupils to opt for it because they want to increase their chances of passing, there have been reports of pupils being forced by schools to take maths literacy in an attempt to keep the pass rate high.

The SAIRR said the fact that more pupils were taking maths lit at the expense of maths was a cause for concern. A researcher at the institute, Jonathan Snyman, said: “The… economy is becoming an increasingly tertiary-based one requiring a more skilled workforce.

Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that most pupils choose their subjects based on what they think they can pass in Grade 12, without realising that many courses at university will not accept candidates with only maths literacy.”

Speaking at the panel discussion last week, Lynn Bowie, a lecturer at the Wits School of Education’s Mathematics Education Division, said the value of maths literacy as a subject shouldn’t be dismissed as everyone needs basic maths skills for everyday life. She said what the education system needed was more than just one maths curriculum in matric.

Bowie said the maths that was written in matric was enabling those who needed the subject to study further and to give basic skills to those who wanted to pursue careers in the technical field.

She said having just one maths curriculum was a hindrance.

When delivering the department’s budget for the 2013/14 financial year in Parliament last week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga revealed that the department had established a maths and science task team to identify teaching and learning difficulties.

DA’ spokeswoman on Basic Education Annette Lovemore said the task team and its terms of reference must be announced without delay.

“The WEF ranking does not reflect the ability of our learners but an education system that needs urgent intervention. Ultimately, the aim of education must be to produce globally competitive citizens,” she said.

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