Here’s why thousands of South African schools dropped maths as a subject

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga has indicated that a number of South African schools have dropped mathematics as a subject over the last five academic years.

In a recent parliamentary Q&A session, Mothsekga indicated that an alarming number of schools dropped the subject from 2015 – 2017. However, no schools have dropped maths as of 2018, she said.

Responding to queries from BusinessTech, Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said that the main reason that these schools dropped mathematics was because of a shortage of teachers.

He added that this decline was arrested in 2018 and 2019 after the Department of Basic Education conducted a review of how many maths teachers it had in its system and how many it needed to send to schools not offering maths.

“We then partnered with TEACH SA who assisted us to send their ambassadors to schools where there were already no maths teachers,” he said.

“We also implemented the recommendations of the task team which the minister set up to investigate all matters on maths, science and technology.”

TEACH South Africa (TEACH) is a non-profit organisation that aims to respond to challenges in the education sector by recruiting, training, placing and supporting young excellent graduates to improve quality in education for every child in South Africa irrespective of their socio-economic background.

“To address mathematics, science and language learner performance in primary and secondary schools TEACH attracts university graduates in these subjects to teach and lead as TEACH Ambassadors for a two-year period in disadvantaged schools in South Africa,” said Mhlanga.

“In addition, the graduates (TEACH Ambassadors) are encouraged to pursue a career in education and where possible the completion of a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) is facilitated during their teaching engagement.”

The below table shows how many schools dropped mathematics as a subject as per Motshekga’s ministerial reply:

Year Number of schools
2015 2 171
2016 733
2017 5 714
2018 0
2019 0

Declining numbers

The number of high school students electing to take subjects which are vital to the economy such as accounting, mathematics and physical sciences is on a steady decline.

The number of students taking mathematics declined from 263,903 in 2015, to 222,034 in 2019 (a decline of 16%) – with just 121,179 of those students passing the subject this year.

Meanwhile, the number of students taking physical sciences declined from 193,189 in 2015, to 164,478 in 2019 (a decline of 15%) – with just 124,237 of those students passing the subject this year.

Both Umalusi and the Department of Basic of Education have raised concerns about the country’s ‘stagnant’ maths marks.

The subject does not seem to be progressing in tandem with cognate subjects in terms of learner performances, said Umalusi chairperson John Volmink.

“For example, performance in physical science seems to be improving year by year, but performance in mathematics is not showing any signs of improvement.

“It is not any worse but it is not any better – it’s just at the same place.”

There were 14,178 fewer learners taking pure mathematics in matric in 2019 compared to the year before, while the number of learners taking maths literacy increased by 6,362.

Spending to improve 

Mhlanga said that increasing learner participation and improving learner performance remains the key mission of government’s Maths, Science and Technology (MST) Education Strategy.

“This is directed at ensuring that every classroom is a space where quality learning and teaching is evident through relevant curriculum taught by competent and professionally qualified teachers with the necessary resources to inspire learners with competencies for the demands of the changing world which would include skills related to the Arts, creativity, innovation, information analysis, problem-solving, endurance, collaboration, negotiation, globalisation and justice,” he said.

Mhlanga cited Motshekga’s department budget vote speech 18 months ago in which she indicated that the MST Grant would be allocated a further R370.5 million in funding  – a 1.5% increase from last year’s allocation.

“This is an indication of the commitment we have in maths,” he said.

Read: Major changes coming to South African schools – including new subjects and adjusted holidays

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Here’s why thousands of South African schools dropped maths as a subject