Making a tangible difference in mathematics education

By Prof. Kerstin Jordaan, Executive Director of the SAMF

Greetings, readers! In this, our last newsletter of the year, the South African Mathematics Foundation celebrates its successes and reveal some of its plans for the coming year. Although COVID-19 brought about many challenges, the results from our learner development programmes show many dedicated teachers in South Africa have the skills and experience to teach mathematics.

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The Foundation successfully organised several learner development programmes in 2021. There was the NESTLÉ NESPRAY South African Mathematics Challenge (SAMC) for primary school learners, the Old Mutual South African Mathematics Olympiad (SAMO) for high school learners, the ASSA South African Mathematics Team Competition (previously known as the Inter-provincial Mathematics Competition), and the South African Tertiary Mathematics Olympiad for undergraduates.

As part of our learner development programmes, we ensured international participation for South African learners in the 2021 Pan-African Mathematical Olympiad (PAMO) and International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO).

Our teacher empowerment programmes for 2021 were the Teacher Problem-solving Course for primary school teachers and the Mathematics Teaching Online Course for high school and FET teachers. In 2020, the Foundation partnered with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Schools Enrichment Centre (AIMSSEC) to aid teachers in continued professional development (CPD). This online course, now in its second year, is proving to be highly effective in helping teachers prepare their learners for the SAMO.

On the 16th of October, the Foundation and its benefactors celebrated top teachers and learners at its Annual Awards Function. You can read more about these achievers in the next section of the newsletter.

The Foundation aims to continue its various learner development and teacher empowerment programmes in 2022 and believes that the results will be visible at next year's Annual Awards Function.

However, to make a tangible difference in mathematics education, the remuneration of teachers in this scarce-skill discipline will need attention. Attracting mathematically talented young people into the teaching profession is becoming increasingly difficult.

Mathematically skilled people worldwide get drawn into engineering, accountancy, actuarial science, and other scientific and financial professions. The time has come to reconsider ways to narrow the salary gap between careers in mathematics in corporate South Africa, and that offered to mathematics teachers.

The reality is that South Africa's education system is inadequately equipped for mass education. Although there have been many efforts at improvement, the system still produces teachers who are, by and large, not adequately trained. How will this affect the next generation? Should the Foundation and other organisations involved in the upliftment effort not make a greater concerted effort to draw the best young people into the system as teachers and adequately prepare them for the task, we may be staring at education's collapse.

But, where do we start? One way would be to look at a differentiated salary structure. Such differentiation should have to go hand-in-hand with evidence of improved teaching and mathematical skills. There would have to be some minimum level of performance, ability and qualification. Perhaps the solution is a professional accreditation similar to the accountancy profession, where one must pass a board exam before one can practice. And then, based on that accreditation, teachers get higher pay from the industry.

Would this happen in my lifetime? Perhaps not, and that is why the Foundation is grateful for companies like Old Mutual and AECI for partnering with us and AIMSSEC to ensure continued professional development for mathematics teachers. Without skilled and dedicated teachers, the pool of mathematically proficient learners will not develop further.

As we enter the last stretch of the academic year, I want to use this opportunity to wish the teachers and their learners all the best for the upcoming year-end exams. May your hard work be rewarded, and may you enjoy a safe and peaceful festive season.

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