South Africa is still not addressing the root causes behind the decline in the number of learners taking mathematics or the decline in the pass rate of those who do choose the subject. Less than 30% of all matric students take maths and only half of them pass their exams.

Professor Rashied Small, executive: centre of future excellence at the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA), says the decline in both the number of learners and their performance can be attributed to the shortage of qualified mathematics teachers and consequently the teaching methodology.

“The decision to not take maths influences your career path. It is not only for accountancy that you need maths to gain university entrance. Almost every career path requires you to have mathematics in matric. Students are excluded from certain careers mainly because of their choice not to take maths,” says Prof Small.

Schools appear to be “encouraging” learners who are struggling with maths to switch to math literacy in Grade 10. This is because they fear ending on the low pass rate list of the Department of Basic Education. The result, for example, is that in a school with 100 matric learners only 12 are taking pure maths, says Faith Ngwenya, technical and standards executive at SAIPA.

SAIPA has been running an accounting, maths and maths literacy support project for Grade 12 learners since 2017 and has seen a drop in the number of learners over the years. Ngwenya agrees with Small on the lack of qualified maths teachers. Those who do teach the subject are not comfortable doing it. They teach learners the solution which they cannot explain themselves.

Ngwenya says maths develops cognitive skills which are part of 21st century learning – the ability to think critically, to communicate, collaborate and to be creative. It has nothing to do with crunching the numbers. It is all about being able to interpret, analyse and to solve problems.

Small adds that the current methodology of teaching, particularly in public schools, does not inform the learner of the logic that underpins the mathematical formulas. “The logic of maths has been taken out of our teaching methods. We need to teach the logic. We need to come back to the basics.”

He refers to the time when learners had to recite the multiplication tables by heart. “If you knew the two-times table the three and four-time tables became easier because the learner could see the pattern. It taught them the relationship between numbers. However, the methodology of teaching has changed, therefore learners find it difficult to see the relationship between numbers.”

Ngwenya warns that if we continue to accept the decline in learner numbers and their performances year after year, we will be worse off. We should start making an effort in Grade 10 to ensure they choose maths and continue with the subject until Grade 12 and that they pass. The view that math should not be taught in class only also has to change. Learners must adopt the habit of practising their math daily, as opposed to just “learning” it.

“Sending them to summer camp when they are already in matric is too late,” Ngwenya says. “The support should start much earlier. These camps do not help to increase the number of students who would have otherwise taken mathematical literacy for an example to change and take mathematics as they are often available to grades 11 and 12 in the main.”

Prof Small adds that teachers have to be better capacitated. The closure of technical teaching colleges is part of the problem. “These colleges equipped them to become teachers, but it also helped them to specialise in the different subjects such as maths, science or accounting.”