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Maths and Science Education: Policy Papers and Research

According to Trialogue’s annual corporate social investment (CSI) research, education was supported by over 90% of companies and received nearly half of CSI expenditure (44%) in 2018. Despite maths and science receiving 30% – the largest portion – of education spend, unskilled teachers and low levels of literacy among learners affect large-scale outcomes. [Read more on Trialogue's research into CSI in Education]

The following policy papers and research provide some insight into the policy framework as well as the state of mathematics and science education in South Africa.

Mathematics outcomes in South African schoools: What are the facts?

This 2013 report summarises two specially commissioned Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) reports – both independent studies of the state of schooling in South Africa as of early 2013. They indicate that, despite some improvement, South Africa still underperforms in maths education. Improving maths teaching and learning in public schools will not happen fast, and poor maths and numeracy in public schools will accelerate private schooling growth and enrolment in private extra maths lessons. A sustained focus on teacher-training enhancement is necessary, and it will likely take a decade or more to achieve significant results regarding maths teaching. In the meantime, the majority of young South Africans are unqualified for many types of white-collar work.

The following papers outline the scope of the problem, and some of the issues that inform it.

  • Understanding the teaching crisis facing South Africa

    This article asks what it will take to improve teacher quality and professionalism in South Africa, with teaching currently perceived as a low-status career.

  • TIMSS Report 2015 – what we can learn about education in South Africa

    The release of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reports for Grades 5 and 9 have prompted debate about South Africa’s poor maths and science results. The 2015 report described the country’s maths and science performance using TIMSS global benchmarks. Key findings of the report indicate that maths and science scores improved from ‘very low’ (1995, 1999 and 2003) to ‘low’ (2011, 2015). Achievement continues to remain highly unequal, with the condition of schools and the school climate an ongoing concern. This paper analyses what 20 years of TIMSS data tells us about the state of education in South Africa.  

  • What do we know about primary teachers’ mathematical content knowledge in South Africa?

    There is consensus in the international mathematics teacher education literature that teachers should, at the most basic level, have mastery of the content knowledge they are required to teach. This paper tests the assumption empirically by analysing the South African SACMEQ 2007 maths teacher test data. Results show that 79% of Grade 6 maths teachers showed content knowledge levels below the Grade 6/7 band, and the few teachers with higher-level content knowledge are inequitably distributed.

  • Maths teachers struggling with English

    A Stellenbosch University (SU) study found that Grades 4-7 maths teachers in under-resourced schools in the Eastern Cape were not proficient in English and their knowledge of maths content was not up to scratch. A teacher’s competency in English relates to the delivery of maths content to learners.

  • Starting behind and staying behind in South Africa: the case of insurmountable learning deficits in mathematics

    This 2015 study quantifies a year’s worth of mathematics learning in South Africa and uses the measure to develop empirically calibrated learning trajectories. Main finding are that only the top 16% of South African Grade 3 children were performing at an appropriate Grade 3 level, and the learning gap between the poorest 60% of students and wealthiest 20% of students is approximately three Grade-levels in Grade 3, growing to four Grade-levels by Grate 9. The study concludes by arguing that the later in life we attempt to repair early-learning deficits in mathematics, the costlier the remediation becomes.

  • Reflection on the Status of Structured In-Service Training Programmes for In-Service Secondary School Mathematics Teachers in SA

    This study undertaken by the South African Mathematics Foundation set out to determine the status of formal in-service training programmes (particularly short courses) for in-service mathematics educators at South African High Schools. The study concluded that there are very few structured professional development training programmes actively supporting in-service maths teachers to cope with the challenges they face in secondary schools.

  • National Senior Certificate: 2019 School Subject Report

    This report, published by the Department of Basic Education, indicated that the Eastern Cape had the lowest pass rate for maths, with 41.8% (down from 45.5% in the 2018 report) compared to the next-lowest of KwaZulu-Natal with 48.5% (down from 50.6% in the 2018 report). It also shows that the number of students writing maths and science exams have been steadily declining since 2016.

  • Mathematics and science education research, policy and practice in South Africa: What are the relationships?

    This review of journal articles containing research into maths and science education during the period 2000-2006 is used to identify clusters of research interest, as well as areas of under-representation. It reveals the paucity of research at primary level, in rural contexts, especially dealing with issues related to language use in multilingual classrooms.


Research to inform possible solutions

  • Evaluating bridging projects to improve the quality of Grade 12 mathematics and science results

    This evaluation of three post-school bridging projects at Reunert College, Midlands Community College and Star Schools offered an opportunity to learn what it takes to implement a bridging programme and what model results in the best outcome. Each project offered extended tuition in maths and science, tertiary access and life skills support, providing opportunities for learners to improve their Grade 12 results and gain access into tertiary studies in science and technical careers.

  • Critical issues in School Mathematics and Science: Pathways to Progress

    This publication, which distils insights from the Proceedings of an Academy of Science of South Africa Forum, held from 30 September to 2 October 2009, examines critical issues in school maths and science education and makes some concrete proposals about how the situation can be improved upon.

  • Mathematics Teaching Project – Factors Influencing Success

    For an intervention to improve the quality of mathematics in a school to succeed, it is essential that the project design includes both the maths teacher and the wider school organisational context, says this article by education specialist André Forbes, Project Management Specialist and Consultant for Siyawela and Project Manager – Old Mutual/Siyawela Community of Practice. It also needs to acknowledge that improved mathematics is a curriculum outcome that extends beyond the narrow objective of raising an individual teacher’s expertise. 

  • Tackling the challenges of improving South African learners’ maths results

    The article outlines findings from the Improving Maths Performance Debate, held in Johannesburg by the FirstRand Foundation. It brought together some of South Africa’s brightest minds with the aim of solving the problem of poor results.  

  • Specialist Mathematics and Science resources

    These Vodacom portal offers a host of specialist maths and science resources that help both teachers and learners develop their knowledge relating to STEM subjects – from the Mathematics Information Delivery Hub and Geogebra to Everything Science, SciBraai and ChemSketch. All are accessible online.


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