Cacophony of Matric percentages – what does it drown out
Published: January 11, 2017


Every year we look forward to and naturally rejoice with those Grade 12 learners who were lucky enough to receive 12 years of good educational opportunities, and who worked diligently throughout their school years and passed at higher levels.

The lamenting, heartache, distress and desperation begin immediately after we realise that it is all an illusion – a cacophony of unbearable pain – as you read between the lines of the provincial league tables and how the total number of passes have increased. Isn’t it crucial to know how many have passed at Levels 4 and above (see table below)? Or how many have passed Mathematics and Science at Levels 5 and above? These are the entry levels required for TVET and universities, as well as for learnerships.

Achievement level Achievement description Marks %
7 Outstanding achievement 80–100
6 Meritorious achievement 70–79
5 Substantial achievement 60–69
4 Adequate achievement 50–59
3 Moderate achievement 40–49
2 Elementary achievement 30–39
1 Not achieved 0–29

BusinessTech puts it as follows:

While there has been a clear statistical increase across most of the country, Chief Director for Public Exams Rufus Poliah revealed that [the number of] learners who excelled in “gateway subjects” Maths and Science were much lower than expected.

  • In Science‚ 3,7% of learners who wrote the paper‚ a total of 7 043‚ received a distinction.
  • In Maths‚ 3% or 8 070 learners who wrote the paper‚ received a distinction.
  • Of those learners who wrote Maths Literacy, only 1,2% received a distinction.

This got me thinking, trying to find some solace. What exactly are we celebrating? If the above stats are correct, 3% of “those who wrote” the Mathematics paper does not include those who didn’t. The article later gives the stats for drop-outs as 43%. This means that 8 070 out of a total of 1,2 million learners who entered Grade 1 some 12 years prior, received a distinction at the end of 2016. And my heart aches, as I am not certain how many of these 8 070 distinctions were awarded to Black learners.

All of this comes hot on the heels of the TIMMS report.

As per Dr Vijay Reddy’s report, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of Grade 4 and Grade 8 students around the world. TIMSS was developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to allow participating nations to compare students’ educational achievement across borders. TIMSS was first administered in 1995 and every four years thereafter – 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015.

Fifty-nine countries and 425 000 students participated in TIMSS in 2015. South Africa conducted TIMMS at Grade 5 and Grade 9 levels. At Grade 9 level, 1,3% of South African Mathematics learners scored at the advanced level of achievement. Globally, 6% of students were at this level. The average among Grade 9 learner score was 362‚ an improvement from 332 in 2011 – 400 is seen as an acceptable pass. According to this report, we have moved from VERY LOW to LOW. In 1996‚ the average score in Grade 9 was 280. The average Grade 9 learner score in a leading country Singapore was 621 – 259 points higher than South Africa. The Korean average result for the test is 606, with Taiwan at 599 and 586 in Japan.

As per this report, at Grade 5, the provincial analysis by TIMSS benchmarks shows that while 60% of the Grade 5 learners scored below 400 TIMSS points nationally, the provincial patterns exhibited vast inequalities. Thirty-one per cent of the learners in the Western Cape and 43% in Gauteng scored below 400 points, while 76% of the learners in Limpopo performed at that level. In the remaining six provinces, between 60% and 74% of learners scored below 400. These provinces have a huge amount of work to do to raise the level of inputs so that there are improved outcomes.

Since 1995, TIMSS has told us repeatedly that the following are the key factors that seem to influence success in Mathematics and Science learning:

  • school readiness
  • maternal education
  • language of learning being used at home
  • each learner owning a textbook
  • discipline and conducive environment
  • qualified and caring teachers
  • contact time implemented
  • reduction of learner absenteeism
  • positive attitude to school work; and
  • schools placing emphasis on academic success.

So here is my appeal to the Department of Education. It is high time we had a minimum statutory requirement for teachers who teach Mathematics and Science. Content and pedagogy needs to be corrected immediately, followed by rigorous implementation and evaluation of both quantity and quality of contact time.

Maths Centre has studied and developed a sustainable model for teacher development. We believe that teacher development is the only sustainable strategy. Only a very small percentage of teachers can go back to university to acquire appropriate qualifications and professionalism. In the absence of departmental measures, Maths Centre has developed its own In-Service Education and Training (INSET) programme for teachers. After 40 days of carefully planned and executed training that is rigorously tested, our teachers will achieve 100% knowledge and skills base in the grade that they are teaching. Teachers are not taken out of school during teaching time. These 40 days are a phased block training programme, presented during school holidays over a two-year period.

A recent report by the World Bank has proven a direct relationship between a country’s Mathematics and Science skills, and its economic growth and development.

Mathematics and Science teaching and learning developments should be scrutinised such that they must link rigorously into the National Development Plan (NDP), the vision of South Africa for 2030 and SA Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for 2030 – a very ambitious goal that certainly will not be achieved by scoring 8 070 distinctions with perhaps a few more each year.

A drastic solution is required.

By 2030, we seek to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality. We seek a country wherein all citizens have the capabilities to grasp the ever-broadening opportunities available. Our plan is to change the life chances of millions of our people, especially the youth; life chances that remain stunted by our apartheid history. (National Development Plan, p.5).

Out of the nine Quality of Life indicators outlined by the United Nations, Mathematics, Science and Technology education in particular impact on those indicators underlined:

  1. People
  2. Knowledge and skills (participation in early childhood education, school participation, qualifications for various careers, skills and job match, career training)
  3. Economic standards of living (income and net worth)
  4. Economic development (economic growth, employment, setting up local businesses)
  5. Housing (housing accessibility, housing costs and affordability)
  6. Natural environment (energy usage)
  7. Safety (crime levels)
  8. Social connectedness (local community strength and spirit)
  9. Civil and political rights (community involvement in decision making)

South Africa’s development objectives cannot be achieved without improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. Goal 1 relates to full and productive employment and decent work for all. At a micro level, this issue of quality and its linkages to produce a better quality of access to higher education and skills development rests with schools and teachers.

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