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Building firm foundations in mathematics 

Excitement was in the air on Thursday 5 January when matriculants of Westbury Secondary school received their matric certificates. Pass rate is 89%. Madelene Cronjé

 Nic Spaull argues that the country should stop fixating on the matric pass rate and place more emphasis on primary school learning

The month of January is an interesting one in the South African calendar. It seems that this is the one time in the year when everyone cares about education — or more accurately, cares about matric. And there is a good reason for this; matric is the gateway to higher education. If we look at 25 to 35-year-olds in the 2011 Census data we see that for those with less than a matric, 47% were unemployed (using the broad definition), compared to 33% among those whose highest qualification was a matric, and only 8% for those with a bachelors degree.

While matric used to be the big distinguisher between the haves and have-nots, increasingly the difference is between those with some kind of tertiary qualification and everyone else. And in 2016, as usual, mathematics proved to be a tough gateway subject for those who want to study further. Only one in three learners who wrote mathematics in 2016 obtained 40% or more in the subject, with a recent study showing that only about 15 000 matriculants achieved 70% or more in mathematics. That’s about 1.5% of the learners who entered the school system 12 years ago.

Wheels coming off

 As anyone familiar with maths will tell you, the subject is a hierarchical one that builds upon itself. You need to understand multiplication and division before you can understand fractions or rate and proportion. So where do the wheels come off? Is it just before matric, perhaps in grade nine or 10? Or even earlier, in grade four or five? To shed some light on this question we can turn to some recent mathematics research published by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) at the end of 2015. Every four years South Africa participates in an international study of mathematics achievement called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). We tested a nationally representative sample of grade five and grade nine learners on the standardised international test, the same test written by thousands of other learners in other countries, and it allowed us to compare ourselves to these other countries — though almost all the countries test their grade four and grade eight learners on these tests.

Encouraging signs

The results showed that only 34% of our grade nine learners could do basic mathematics, i.e. could reach the lowest international benchmark. That is to say that 66% of our learners could not do basic computations or match tables to bar graphs, or read a simple line graph. They had not acquired a basic understanding of whole numbers, decimals or operations. However, there was one piece of encouraging information that emerged from the study and that was that the number of learners who could do basic mathematics increased from 24% in 2011 to 34% in 2015 in South Africa, one of the fastest improvements seen internationally.

Learners cannot add and subtract

 But if 66% of our grade nine learners can’t do basic maths, when did these gaps emerge? The TIMSS test of 2015 showed that 61% of grade five learners could not reach the “low international benchmark”. Learners who do not reach the low international benchmark at the primary level cannot add and subtract three or four digit whole numbers like 218 and 191. They do not recognise familiar geometric shapes or parallel and perpendicular lines. They cannot read and complete simple bar graphs and tables. For example, according to our curriculum, multiplying a three-digit number by a one-digit number is meant to be covered in term one of grade four, yet only 41% of our grade five learners could calculate “512 x 3 =____”. So, almost 60% of our grade five learners were already significantly behind the curriculum.

The conclusion is that the root of our problems does not lie in high school but rather much earlier, in the lower grades of primary school. This is not a new finding — there are many studies showing this, from at least 1999. While as a country we continue to obsess about the matric pass rate, the research is really quite clear. The majority of our young people are acquiring learning deficits early on in primary school and then carrying these with them as they move through school. As they are promoted into higher grades there is a decoupling between what learners know and can do and what the curriculum expects from them. We need to acknowledge that matric starts in grade one (and even earlier), and that it really is possible to improve primary schooling if that is where we focus most of our time, energy and resources.

 Dr Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the Research on Socioeconomic Policy group at Stellenbosch University, and can be found on Twitter @NicSpaull

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