Durban - Most maths teachers can’t do the simple sums expected of 12-year-olds at South Africa’s public schools, new research has found.

A study released this week found that nearly 80 percent of Grade 6 maths teachers could not do what the curriculum expected of the pupils in their classes.

The aim of the research is to inform policy on the training of student teachers and the professional development of those already at the blackboard.

It was authored by Nic Spaull, an education researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, and Professor Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, the South African Numeracy Chair at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

They also said 62 percent of Grade 6 pupils were taught maths by teachers who could only manage Grade 5 work.

What was worse, Spaull and Venkatakrishnan said, was that they were unable to find evidence of any sort of existing training and professional development intervention which had helped to improve the knowledge of maths teachers.

The research comes on the back of another recent study which revealed that matric maths teachers in KwaZulu-Natal were battling with the same content their pupils were expected to master.

The earlier study, by academics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Durban University of Technology, found a sample of 253 KwaZulu-Natal teachers scored an average of just 57 percent when given a matric maths past paper to write.

Teacher content knowledge continues to impede learning in South Africa, despite the government, universities and NGOs having provided years of training and professional development.

Just on Wednesday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the launch of professional learning communities and subject committees as part of her department’s focus on teacher development.

The professional learning communities would bring together teachers, school managers and subject advisers to address professional development, while the subject committees would serve as vehicles to promote discussion and inputs by subject specialists on curriculum policy development and implementation, Motshekga’s department said.

However, in their research Spaull and Venkatakrishnan argue that without evidence of the impact of such interventions, improving the performance of pupils in maths “remains a distant pipe dream”.

“It is not an overstatement to say there is a crisis relating to primary school maths teacher content knowledge,” they said.

While the variable quality of teacher training under apartheid had been widely written about, concern had continued to be expressed, post-apartheid, about the quality of in-service teacher training.

Spaull and Venkatakrishnan analysed data from the influential 2007 SACMEQ study (the latest) for their new research.

They probed the responses of 401 Grade 6 teachers to a multiple choice test. Their analysis revealed the areas of the maths curriculum where teachers struggled, and at which grade level.

Learning areas were divided into: number and operations; fractions, decimals and proportional reasoning; patterns, graphical reasoning and algebra; shape and space.

Teachers struggled most with problems involving ratio and proportion.

Spaull and Venkatakrishnan classified teachers as having attained the content knowledge for a particular grade if they scored an average of 60 percent or higher on the test questions at that level.

By recommended international standards this was lenient. For example, they explained, according to the American Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences, maths teachers should have a thorough mastery of the maths several grades beyond what they expected to teach.

But they found that just 16 percent of Grade 6 pupils were taught by maths teachers who had at least a Grade 8 or Grade 9 level of content knowledge.

When the pair divided up their analysis by quintile, it was clear that teachers with relatively high levels of maths content knowledge were concentrated in the wealthiest 20 percent of schools (quintile five).

Less than 10 percent of the teachers in quintile one, two and three schools were able to handle questions at the Grade 8 and Grade 9 level.

Turning to policy suggestions, Spaull and Venkatakrishnan said any in-service professional development or pre-service training needed to be set at Grade 4 or Grade 5 level rather than matric level content.

In its report released at the weekend, a ministerial task team appointed by Motshekga to evaluate the standard of the national senior certificate recommended that it be compulsory for all schools to offer pure maths, in addition to maths literacy.

But the task team cautioned that such a decision would have to be accompanied by a concerted effort to support all schools to employ or develop competent maths teachers.

The Mercury