South African schools are falling behind in maths and science – but there’s a plan to get things back on track

 ·1 Sep 2021

The Department of Basic Education plans to boost its maths and science capabilities after schools fell further behind in these subjects due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Presenting to parliament this week, the department said that matric performance in these two subjects has been low for several years, with 12 districts specifically targeted because they were under-performing.

The department said it has now developed a new training programme to help assist these districts, including a collaboration with Cuban specialists to design new course materials for maths and science at schools.

An online training course has also been developed for subject advisors in Grade 8 and Grade 9.

Data published by the Telkom Foundation in August shows the Covid-19 pandemic has also hurt school learners in the critical areas of mathematics and science.

The data reveals that the lack of face-to-face learning under lockdown has seen high-school learners regressing.

“The Telkom Foundation has been monitoring data from schools we support across the country since 2018,” said Sarah Mthintso, chief executive of the Telkom Foundation.

“Regrettably, we have seen the negative impact of the pandemic – and the unavoidable closure of schools – has had on learning.”

Globally, the World Bank estimates that the closure of schools affected 1.6 billion learners. South Africa was among those countries forced to impose strict lockdown conditions, which halted classroom learning.

The Telkom Foundations initial diagnostic assessments conducted with grade 9 found that several learners had deficiencies in math and science, many of which were carried from the intermediate phase at primary school, impacting their ability to excel in these subjects.

This meant that the Foundation had to focus on both grade-level and remedial approaches to close the gaps. The grade 9 learners surveyed showed an improvement from a Grade 3 level understanding to a grade 5 level before the impact of the Covid pandemic.

“Over the years, we have seen learner improvement as a result of this targeted hybrid approach, however with Covid-19 restrictions and learners missing contact learning time, some have regressed in key areas, particularly problem solving, algebra and measurement,” said Mthintso.


In addition to subject performance issues, the department also raised concerns around the number of learner dropouts and lost teaching time.

About 80% of learning was lost in 2020, while 50% of the 2021 school has been lost for many learners, it said.

Civil society organisations and education experts have now published an open letter to the Department of Basic Education warning about the high drop-out rate in South Africa’s schools.

The letter, which was published in the Daily Maverick, argues that Covid-19 school closures, coupled with the economic shocks of the pandemic, have exacerbated a dropout crisis “long in the making”.

The group called for a coordinated national dropout prevention plan to help address these losses.

“Even before the pandemic, available figures suggested that four out of 10 learners who started school in Grade 1 would drop out before completing matric,” the group said. “The number of learners who have not re-enrolled due to Covid-19 exacerbates this worrying trend.”

The group added that the number of South Africa’s dropouts is still not clear – varying widely from the government’s official figure of 300,000 learners to upwards of 750,000 learners in the latest NIDS-CRAM survey.

To address these and other issues, the group recommended the following interventions:

  • Encourage community involvement in getting learners back to class by leveraging structures like street committees and churches to help trace learners who are unaccounted for;
  • Develop uniform attendance monitoring systems (until Grade 12), from the national level all the way to schools, to get a real sense of the scope of learner disengagement and dropout;
  • Revise the curriculum to promote learning recovery, in consultation with the latest data from the DBE’s curriculum audit – as well as subject specialists, teachers, curriculum developers and other stakeholders;
  • Initiate a sustained and comprehensive, data-driven, Back-to-School plan (until Grade 12) to reach learners who have dropped out and to assist them with re-enrolment. This must include the development of a national psychosocial support strategy that is linked to an early warning system;
  • Hold regular discussions about “Care and Support in Schools” at national and provincial levels;
  • Establish a learnership on how to use data to inform interventions. Capacitate school staff to use data, with the necessary infrastructure and human resources for data collection and management in place;
  • Make dropout prevention an explicit goal of the education system. Dropout should be a key performance indicator for provincial education departments, and the national department must set reduction targets to hold officials accountable.

Curriculum recovery plan 

The opposition Democratic Alliance called for a curriculum recovery plan to help make up for lost teaching time.

The party said schools lost 50-75% of learning time in 2020, and the 2021 educational year is following the same track. It warned that foundation education learners are expected to suffer the most in their following school years if this is not addressed.

“The Department of Basic Education must ensure that the provinces and various district circuits engage with teaching staff to truly understand the various schools in every district’s specific needs and concerns in completing the curriculum and to find solutions in bridging those shortfalls.

“The provincial departments must also ensure that the districts engage with their local municipalities to find safe public spaces where extra measures to increase learning time could be implemented.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the growing chasms in South Africa’s schooling system, and nearly two years of broken learning time has exacerbated the challenges learners face in getting a quality education, it said.

“The minister and her department need to ensure that their time is well-spent in finding innovative solutions to the crisis.

“World-wide innovative solutions have been found, and there are many schools in South Africa that have also risen to the challenge. The minister must take inspiration from these innovations and ensure that no child would be left behind.”

Read: Universities are updating their courses to help address South Africa’s skills shortage

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter