SA’s worrying mathematics trend

The 2014 International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) took place in Cape Town in July, attracting the top mathematics students from across the globe.

Three students shared first prize with perfect scores: Alexander Grunning from Australia, Jiyang Gao from the People’s Republic of China, and Po-Sheng Wu from Taiwan.

The top countries in the event were China, the United States, Taiwan, Russia, and Japan. South Africa was ranked at 64 out of 101 competing countries.

Robin Visser, a Grade 12 learner at St George’s Grammar School in Cape Town, was South Africa’s top performer. He received a Bronze medal with a total score of 20 points.

South Africa’s declining performance

Over the last two decades South Africa’s performance at the International Mathematical Olympiad has declined significantly.

In the eleven years between 1994 and 2004 South Africa finished in the top half of the competing countries eight times (73% of the time).

Over the next decade, South Africa only finished in the top half 3 times (30% of the time).

The following graph shows South Africa’s absolute position in the IMO and the number of competing teams.

SA IMO ranking

Bigger trend in education

What is of particular concern is the performance of South Africa’s general population in mathematics and science.

The Trends in Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) research shows that South Africa’s performance is very close to the bottom of all surveyed countries.

The TIMSS is aimed at grade eight students. However, grade 9 students in South Africa started to write the grade 8 tests because the grade eight TIMSS assessment was too difficult for eighth grade students in South Africa.

In 2011, South Africa was only one of three countries – with Botswana and Honduras – where grade nine students did the grade eight tests.

This did not do much to improve SA’s overall ranking. South Africa’s performance was so poor that the grade 8 students of all the participating countries, except Ghana, outperformed South Africa’s grade 9 students.

TIMSS Scores

Education system failing, hurting industry

South Africa’s failing education system – especially in mathematics and science – means that there is a scarcity of skills in engineering and related fields.

According to former Naspers CEO Koos Bekker, the country’s poor education system is hurting Internet developments and investment in the country.

“To get an engineer you need a kid who is enthused about mathematics, and is prepared to study engineering at university,” said Bekker.

“Regrettably, our education system is so poor it simply does not yield the mathematics geniuses we need to go to university to become engineers.”

Bekker said they had to bring in engineers from India to supplement their own people in South Africa to execute the company’s e-commerce strategy.

This article was first published on MyBroadband.

More on South Africa’s education

Maths and science in SA: defending the indefensible

SA government rejects global maths ranking

South Africa stone last in maths and science list


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SA’s worrying mathematics trend