The math conundrum

South Africa’s performance in terms of its mathematics and science education is poor, according to results by the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report. The report for 2015/16 painted a depressing picture, with South Africa placed at 138 out of 140 countries.

One would expect the government to improve the quality of our mathematics and science education after such an embarrassing report, but what shocked many South Africans this past week was the Department of Education excusing grade 7 to 9 learners that had obtained 20% in mathematics, lower than the pass mark of 40%.

“There are learners who are passing all their subjects, six of their seven subjects but failing mathematics. And consequently, particularly in grade 9, they fail their standard because mathematics has now become a compulsory pass subject,” said Western Cape Education head Brian Schreuder in an interview with Eyewitness News.

Schreuder went on to say that those learners who pass everything except mathematics will be condoned so that they can continue into FET or grade 10 but not be permitted to take mathematics as a subject unless they take mathematics literacy.

Are we ignoring the importance of Mathematics in a child’s life and making decisions for them that will affect their life forever?

Large companies like Investec funds projects like Pro-Maths that focus on assisting high school learners with mathematics and science. SAICA has also taken it upon itself to improve the maths and science crisis by starting the Maths and Science Academy for Alexandra Schools.

A group of 10 students from the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), myself included, started the “I love my Maths Campaign” in August 2015 to respond to the crisis by collecting and donating scientific calculators and Mathematical sets to township schools in order to assist the learners performance. Many organisations and individuals have taken it upon themselves to lend a hand in improving mathematics and science in South Africa.

All these efforts surely show that we acknowledge the level of difficulty and importance of mathematics, and that is why a pass mark of 20% is insulting.

As someone who enjoyed mathematics, a subject that allowed me to travel to different places for Olympiads and other learning experiences, I want other kids to share the same experiences. I remember travelling to Johannesburg for the first time in the year 2010 as a grade 10 learner to meet other learners from the rest of South Africa purely because of doing well in mathematics.

By condoning these learners to the next grade, we are ignoring all the factors that might have led to the subject fail and assuming that the subject is too difficult for them. Giving these learners a second chance at passing the subject could open a lot of doors for them in the future – doors they never thought existed.

According to, “Math teaches logic and order. You can expect a mathematical equation to have a predictable outcome, and precise steps must be followed to attain that result. The discipline of mind that children develop in math class can carry over into everyday life. Companies know this, as some businesses will hire math majors based on the presumption that students who are good at math have learned how to think.”

If we are saying that the 80% of the mathematics work that a learner has failed isn’t important, how do we even begin to improve our world ranking to a better and less depressing position? How do we encourage learners to try and work hard in mathematics if they know that they will be condoned anyway?

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