South Africa has a dire need for quality mathematics teaching

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The quality of mathematics education in South Africa has been a topic of discussion for many years. Mathematically gifted learners tend to seek careers in software development, medicine, engineering, and accounting. It is unusual for mathematically talented students to pursue a teaching career, which presents the country with severe challenges in terms of mathematics education.

Prof Kerstin Jordaan, the executive director at the South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF), believes South Africa needs a larger quantity and better quality of mathematically skilled people. When asked why, she responds “because mathematics underpins all innovation in finance, engineering, and business. For this reason, one of the main goals of the SAMF is to make a positive impact on the standard of mathematics teaching and learning in the country.”

The SAMF is a non-profit company (NPC) that works toward promoting quality mathematics teaching and learning for all South Africans. The organisation was born in 2004 out of a collaboration between the South African Mathematical Society (SAMS) and the Association for Mathematics Education in South Africa (AMESA).

"We have four key focus areas," explains Prof Jordaan. "Learner development, teacher development, research, and advocacy. At primary school level, we organise the annual South African Mathematics Challenge, where we have partnered with NESTLÉ NESPRAY and are annually touching the lives of around 90,000 learners registering for the first round. This year, just over 9,300 mathematically gifted primary school learners qualified for the final round of the Challenge. We are proud that Old Mutual has stepped up as our headline partner, with the South African Institute for Chartered Accountants (SAICA) as co-partner, for our flagship programme at secondary school level, the Old Mutual South African Mathematics Olympiad. Old Mutual are also supporting the selection and international participation of the South African National teams at the Pan-African and the International Mathematical Olympiads as well as development initiatives aimed at empowering teachers of those learners participating in the Olympiad to further develop their mathematical talent. Other partners in our development projects include the Actuarial Society of South Africa, the Department of Science and Innovation, the Department of Basic Education and AIG.”

The SAMF currently co-ordinates three professional development programmes for mathematics teachers. The aims of these programmes are to improve the standard of mathematics teaching, to improve teachers' skills and confidence to meet the challenges of implementing the curriculum and to increase overall appreciation of mathematics and the critical role it plays in the digital and financial environments.

The Department of Basic Education has plans to introduce coding and robotics as official school subjects while a white paper by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies lists some future skills to be introduced to the curriculum. These skills include scientific, digital, financial and cultural fluency, 3D printing, algorithms design and use, artificial intelligence applications, big data analytics, cybersecurity, digital content design, drone applications, gamification, mechatronics, robotics and software engineering. According to government, this means that large numbers of teachers need to be trained to teach subjects where school goers, at early childhood development, primary and secondary schooling levels, learn to be digital citizens.

“These ideas sound fantastic and look great on paper,” Prof Jordaan says. “So, what is the problem with this? The most recent report from Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that South Africa’s grade nine mathematics learners ranked 38th out of 39 against grade eight learners in other countries. The country’s average grade 9 mathematics score was 372. The study classifies 400 points as the minimum level of competency.  For grade five mathematics, South Africa achieved 376 points which ranked us 47th out of 48 compared to grade four learners in other countries. According to the Global Competitiveness Report presented at the 2017/18 World Economic Forum, South Africa is ranked 128th out of 137 countries for the quality of its school mathematics and science education.”

Herein lies the problem. If we cannot get the basics of mathematics right, it is futile to add new subjects and digital skills to the curriculum. However, once we get the basics of mathematics teaching right, everything else will flow from that. Prof Jordaan explains that if we want to make a difference to the results that are coming out of the schools and the number of learners that are emerging with the right skills to pursue quant careers, then we must turn our attention to the teachers. “We need competent and qualified teachers that have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach the mathematics curriculum to inspire learners with competencies for a changing world. Teachers need to be empowered to generate interest in mathematics and to promote a broader perspective on the nature of mathematical activities. Therefore, we must enhance educational opportunities for disadvantaged communities by introducing new skills and raising the standards of mathematics teaching in South Africa.”

For the SAMF to seriously consider achieving its aims, it needs financial partners.  Prof Jordaan concludes: “We aim to deliver high-quality professional development courses for mathematics teachers, to enhance their pedagogical approaches and increase their subject content knowledge, thereby improving transition rates into mathematics and science careers for their learners. We are looking for partners to come on board and add their support to those who can take these contributions and use them to multiply the depth and skill of the next generation of mathematical leaders. “

If you or your company want to get involved in changing the future of mathematics in the country, contact Ellie Olivier via email at

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