Success in maths and science education is crucial for South Africa’s future. Within the context of maths and science education in South Africa, it is important to understand learners’ performance in STEM subjects and the factors that influence maths and science education outcomes.
How does STEM education support development in South Africa?
On the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), proficiency in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) is critical to help solve the problem of unemployment, reduce inequality, drive financial inclusion, and promote global competitiveness. The African Union has indicated that prioritising science, mathematics and technology education is essential to drive economic prosperity and industrialisation in South Africa.
According to the World Economic Forum, it is critical that learners study STEM subjects in order to create a more employable workforce. Most of the top scarce-skills occupations in South Africa are STEM-related. Developing STEM skills is also critical to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly when it comes to boosting the number of women and girls entering STEM-related careers.
South African learners’ performance in STEM subjects
South African learners have performed poorly on a few benchmark tests that have been conducted in recent years – for example, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) benchmarks, 63% of Grade 5 South African learners don’t exhibit the minimum competencies in basic mathematical knowledge required at the Grade 5 level. South African learners were placed 38th out of 39 countries for mathematics at Grade 9 level, and last for science, while they were placed 62nd out of 64 countries for Grade 5 mathematics. The country has participated in six such TIMSS studies, and average performance has improved over the past two decades. Despite this, however, inequalities continue to widen throughout school and into adulthood.
In 2020, only 21% of matric learners wrote pure mathematics and fewer than 3% passed with a mark above 60%, ensuring them entry into university studies in maths and science. The rate of learners dropping maths as they near the end of their schooling remains consistently high. Stats showed that less than 3% of children who started school together in Grade 1 finished matric in 2020 with a solid understanding of maths and the skills required to access tertiary studies in maths and science.
In 2021, the maths pass rate improved slightly from 53.8% in 2020 to 57.6% in 2021. But South African math and science results remain low. Only 35% of the 750 458 matric learners wrote the final maths exam and only 5% passed with 60% or more.
In physical science, 69% of matrics who wrote the final exam passed in 2021. University graduation in STEM-related courses is around 20%, meaning there is an urgent need to improve school education.
The 2022 matric class achieved a pass rate of 55% for mathematics and 74.6% for physical science.
Skilled educators are needed to teach maths and science
With South Africa in need of maths and science skills to grow the economy, it’s imperative that there are enough skilled educators to teach the subjects. However, South Africa has a lack of qualified maths and science teachers. The inaugural 2030 Reading Panel reported that primary school maths teachers in training across three universities scored just over 50% on a primary school maths test. This shows a need for improved teacher training and support.