Statistics show that pupils’ poor performance in maths at school points to under-qualified teachers or the curriculum. Picture: Michael Walker

Johannesburg - Academics have fiercely criticised the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) recent pronouncements regarding proposed changes to the passing requirements for grades 7 to 9.

This comes in the wake of the DBE’s proposed changes to the passing requirements for those grades, which specifically involves mathematics. 

The department proposed the lowering of the pass rate to 40% for four subjects, including a home language, and 30% for four other subjects in those grades.

The department has also revealed its plan to drop maths as a compulsory subject for grades 7-9.

The proposal comes after the dismal final results were released for last year’s matrics.

But some have questioned why maths is being singled out for poor pass rates of pupils in those grades, while others said the proposal would be counterproductive to the development of maths in the country.

Professor Robert Balfour, acting deputy vice-chancellor of teaching-learning at North West University, said the department was highlighting maths as the key component for poor pass rates and creating a harsher reality for the state of maths as a whole.

According to Balfour, pupils in grades 7-9 cannot know already whether they wish to pursue a career in maths or not, and this would in turn create a situation where, should the pupils decide to pursue maths, they would not be able to do so.

“If learners and teachers realise that they need not pass maths to pass the grade, it might allow teachers to spend less time on mathematics, and it will impact negatively on learners’ motivation to study mathematics,” Balfour pointed out.

He also emphasised how the lack of focus on mathematics could lead to a decrease of funding on resources for the maths department.

It could also create a divide between maths and other subjects, which would then lead to the idea that maths was not important, Balfour added.

And it’s not only Balfour who disagrees with the DBE’s move.

Nomusa Cembi, the spokesperson for the South African Democratic Teachers Union, is of the view that mathematics is a critical subject in the basic education level.

“It is important that pupils are motivated to learn mathematics.”

Cembi also said South Africa’s mathematics must be on the same level as that in other African countries.

But Nkosipendule Ntantala, the president of the National Professional Teachers Organisation of SA (Naptosa), believes the proposal could be a move in the right direction.

“Not all learners would want to pursue a career in mathematics, and thus there should be no need to punish them."

“Only those who want to pursue a career in mathematics should be obliged to take the subject.”

Ntantala also said the real issue does not lie with the percentage, but with the quality of teaching and learning in mathematics.

“Naptosa is of the view that the sooner a decision is made in this regard, the better for the country."

“They (the department) do not want to inflate marks when they realise that learners are failing, as they did the previous year.”

South Africa is ranked 138 out of 144 in mathematics.

Dr Annelie Roux, of North West University, expressed concern about the situation and said the proposal would be counterproductive to the development of maths in the country.

Both Roux and Balfour are worried about the state of mathematics in the country and believe the DBE’s proposal will do nothing to combat the problem.

According to Triple E Training, an adult education and training provider since 1991, statistics they have gathered prove that the average numeracy level of adults in South Africa is equal to that of Grade 2 or 3, a large portion of which is made up of young adults who passed Grade 12 in recent years.

Marinda Clack, executive marketer at Triple E Training, said this proves that maths literacy is not sufficient, and mathematics should remain a compulsory subject for grades 7, 8 and 9.

That was because maths trains the brain for solving problems in not only mathematical problem-solving, but general problem-solving skills that were needed in life.

“Removing mathematics as a compulsory subject, in my opinion is irresponsible of the DBE, considering that problem-solving is a key skill in the advancement of any economy."

“Logic dictates that the statistics we see where even young adults with Grade 12 show a maths literacy level equal to that of Grade 2 or 3 is partially linked to under-qualified teachers or even an incorrect curriculum,” she pointed out.

“Another factor that contributes to this is the recent addition of maths literacy, because most learners opt for that instead of mathematics."

“Unfortunately, maths literacy is not sufficient to help adults function independently. Daily we see how adults need assistance to read a till slip or understand a salary slip, let alone manage a personal budget,” Clack said.

The Star