There is a national crisis in higher grade (HG) maths and science schooling performance and participation in South Africa. Poor maths and science education is probably the single biggest obstacle to African advancement in South Africa today.

In 1998-9, the Third International Maths and Science Study (conducted in 38 countries) reported that South Africa performed worst of all other participating countries.

Between 1991 and 2003 HG maths enrolment plummeted by 32,95 per cent while total enrolment for Senior Certificate maths increased by 90,4 per cent. Only 23,42 per cent (4 637) of all HG maths graduates were African in 2003.

The entry of newly qualified maths and science educators is not keeping pace with retirements, retrenchments, and losses to other sectors, never mind actually increasing the country’s resources in these subjects. Only 14,7 per cent of educators have the minimum qualifications to teach maths and science. We do not have the capacity now or in the foreseeable future to introduce a bottom-up reform initiative, starting in the primary schools.

Although there are energetic initiatives funded by government and private sector players assisting many thousands of people, they have had no discernable effect on the system as a whole. The maths and science education system is failing to deliver enough school-leavers equipped with HG maths and science to meet the needs of the education system, let alone the needs of the economy.

South Africa is devoting significant resources to huge numbers of learners who, under current circumstances, have little if any chance of passing Senior Certificate maths and science. Simultaneously, a large number of learners with the potential to succeed in maths and science are not getting the opportunity to study these subjects.

We need to achieve much better matching between good learners, good educators and effective schools. We must stop wasting resources and setting up learners to fail.

How do we do this? By adopting an approach which builds on what is working in the system, and focusing on limited but achievable aims that if delivered lay the foundation for an improving system over time.

Over the next five years, South Africa should aim to double the number of HG maths and science passes and double the number of qualified and able teachers in the public school system. To achieve this South Africans need to do the following things.

  • Mobilise for a national effort: pull together the energy of leaders in public and private sectors to achieve a dramatic increase in performance through a common strategic framework for intervention.
  • Increase the supply of qualified maths and science educators: identify those we have and how we can keep them in the teaching profession. Provide incentives to encourage more people to teach maths and science. Institute a systematic approach to professional development of maths and science educators – there are successful models overseas. If necessary, bring in educators with excellent language skills from abroad (India).
  • Build on the potential in our school system: Support all high-performing schools and investigate ways in which they could play a bigger role. Can they deal with larger classes? Can they expand their maths and science departments? Can they share their expertise with other schools? Identify the next band of schools that could perform better and assist them in different ways. Link incentives to specific goals so we are incrementally improving and expanding access to effective teaching.
  • Identify all learners with potential in maths and science so that “no child is left behind” because they do not have an effective school nearby. Introduce a nationwide aptitude test (Grade 9) to identify learners with talent who are then provided with financial support to attend an effective school. This could be a neighbouring school or a boarding school, public or private. Money should follow learners, thus benefiting their new school and introducing healthy competition between schools.
  • Maths and science education initiatives should include appropriate language components. All the research indicates that learners’ proficiency in the language of instruction and examination plays a very significant role in their performance in maths and science.
  • The government’s Dinaledi programme – 102 specialist schools for maths and science – should be supported but needs to be re-thought and then expanded.
  • Review all other educational policies for their effect on maths and science. This is the country’s top educational priority and we must make sure that other educational reforms do not undermine our ability to achieve the doubling of HG passes that we desperately need.
  • The private sector, NGOs and international donors should review the support they are giving to maths and science with a view to aligning with this new national thrust.
  • The cabinet should establish a task force, a national partnership between public and private sectors to change the future of maths and science schooling in South Africa. The task force should have co-chairs from cabinet and private sector leadership and should be accountable for results, reporting annually to parliament. South Africa will not succeed unless there is a dedicated, accountable body to direct this new effort on maths and science.

This report provides a moment of opportunity for South Africa. Key organisations in the private sector are willing to help make a significant difference, hence their support for this privately funded initiative which has also received enthusiastic support beyond its original 10 major donors.

A bold response from government is required. If this happens, a dramatic increase in performance is achievable within a five-year period.