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Concern over gateway subjects

By BIANCA CAPAZORIO Time of article published Jan 5, 2013

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Johannesburg - While the increase in the number of passes in matric maths and science has been lauded, the dwindling numbers of pupils choosing to take these subjects has education experts concerned.

Nationally, the matric maths pass rate rose from 46.3 percent in 2011 to 54 percent last year while that for science rose from 53.4 percent to 61.3 percent.

However, the number of pupils writing these “gateway” subjects, including accounting, have been on the decrease since 2009.

In 2009, at least 290 407 wrote maths, way up from the 225 874 the previous year.

There was a slight increase between 2011 and last year.

For physical science, 220 882 pupils wrote the subject in 2009, but the figure fell to 179 194 last year.

Accounting has also seen a decline, from 174 347 in 2009 to 134 978 last year.

Eugene Daniels, of the Citizens Movement, called the statistics disturbing and an indictment on the education system.

“Many of our schools are trying to achieve 100 percent pass rates, and maths, science and accounting are problematic subjects. Schools tend to steer pupils towards easier subjects to achieve that pass rate.

 

“Many pupils are talented enough to do maths, but the school encourages them towards maths literacy. And most pupils, given the opportunity to do something easier, will do it.”

Daniels says the primary contributor to the problem is primary school teachers not properly trained in content and methodology, which meant the basics weren’t being put in place.

“Then, when pupils hit high school, they opt for maths literacy.”

Last year, Parliament was told of the dire state of affairs in terms of maths and science teachers, with a shortage of more than 2 000 recorded for each subject.

Education expert Graeme Bloch said it was a problem that maths and science numbers were down, given the technological society in which pupils lived.

He said the focus should not only be on matric maths and science, but on grades leading up to Grade 12.

The country, he said, needed more graduates in other fields such as sociology, so the focus should not be purely on maths and science.

Equal Education also expressed concern, saying that while it was encouraged that maths passes had improved, the number of pupils writing the subject remained low.

Unsurprisingly, the organisation said, maths literacy continued to rise in popularity, with an increase of more than 15 000 pupils opting for it between 2011 and last year.

“Maths is crucial for individual freedom and economic development; it is a gateway to science, medicine, commerce, engineering and other vital parts of the economy,” Equal Education said.

Daniels said that because maths was the basis of “so many careers”, it was problematic that fewer people were choosing to do it.

“In some careers, it is pivotal. Research shows that people swop careers about eight times in their lifetime, so unless pupils have maths, they are severely limited.”

Dr Felicity Coughlan, director of the Independent Institute of Education, said that while the lower numbers were a concern for the tertiary sector, where the gateway subjects are important to study options in business and science in particular, the news was not all bad.

“A decline in the total doing maths that is matched by an improvement in the quality of passes, and an improvement in race and gender equity in these passes, is less of a concern than a decline that is accompanied by reduced quality of passes that are patterned socially or economically.”

She said maths literacy, aimed at increasing general numeracy, could also be seen as a life skill. “If the reduction in the number doing maths is balanced by an increase in the overall numeracy level of the school-leaving cohort, then there is less of a problem than if we were both reducing the number doing maths and not achieving improved general numeracy either.”

Pretoria News Weekend

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