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Aug 03, 2012

Inside efforts to turn the tide on South Africa’s poor maths and science performance

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It has become blindingly obvious to all South Africans that the prevailing deficiencies in basic maths and science education have become a major, if not the major, constraint in ensuring that the country’s human capital is fully aligned to the country’s economic growth and development goals, including the deployment of a long-term programme to upgrade and expand social and economic infrastructure.

In the National Development Plan of 2011, the National Planning Commission (NPC) sets out a vision for “schools that provide all learners with an excellent education, especially in literacy, mathematics and science”. In addition, it calls for an education system that is constantly improving.

The reality, highlighted again by the Limpopo textbook shambles, is an education system that continues to underperform generally, but more so in the critical areas of maths and science teaching and learning, notwithstanding the fact that basic education absorbs more than R150-billion of fiscal resources yearly, making it the largest single budgetary item in a consolidated government budget that now exceeds R1-trillion a year. In total, the yearly public-sector education budget stands at more than R207-billion.

One initiative established to tackle this issue is the Dinaledi Schools Project. It was established in 2005 under the National Strategy for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education. The objective of the programme is to improve the marks in and the quality of teaching in maths and science subjects.

At the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE’s) Budget vote earlier this year, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said: “We are implementing a new national strategy for mathematics, science and technology education. It reinforces the Dinaledi schools programme, which has received a conditional grant of R99.7-million for 2012/13.”

“The purpose of the conditional grant is to improve outcomes in the Grade 12 mathematics and physical sciences examinations. The modalities include augmentation of teacher content knowledge, provision of capital equipment and reference material, study guides, computers and computer simulations, [the implementation of] practice drills, as well as the provision of laboratory apparatus and consumables,” Department of Basic Education chief director for communications Panyaza Lesufi tells Engineering News.

But what is the programme and is it performing?

There are more than 550 schools that parti- cipate in the project across South Africa. Gauteng Education MEC Barbara Creecy says that, since the start of the project, there has been a “positive increase in the matric results for the 103 participating Dinaledi schools in Gauteng”.

“Currently, we have just more than 50% of the Dinaledi schools achieving a pass rate of between 70% and 100% in maths and physical science. We have 31% achieving a pass rate of between 40% and 70% for maths and science and 19 schools achieving a maths and science pass rate below 40%.

“There has also been a significant increase in the science pass rate since 2009. In 2009, we achieved a 44.4% pass rate for physical science and, in 2011, we achieved a 63% pass rate,” says Creecy.

The improvement has occurred against a background of improving pass rates generally. Thirty per cent of matriculants do substantially well enough to qualify for university entrance.

Still Lagging
Mathematics, however, showed much slower improvement. Between 2009 and 2011, there was a 3% increase for the Dinaledi participating schools.

“Learner performance in maths did not improve as quickly as learner performance in physical science. Perhaps, the reason is that the maths marks were better than the science marks in 2009.”

There is a growing appreciation that more students need to be involved in maths and science at a higher level to meet the economy’s skills demand and offer learners, especially poorer learners, a broader scope of career options, including engineering.

It is widely understood that, without maths and science, South Africa will continue to struggle to educate, train and register the engineers it requires to sustain long-term infrastructure programmes, as well as support company-level investments in mining, industry and services.


South Africa’s current ratio of one engineer for every 3 166 citizens does not compare favourably with that of not only China, which a has an engineer for every 130 of its more than one-billion people, but also India and Brazil, where the ratio is one to 157 and one to 227 respectively.


Creecy acknowledges this misalignment, saying it is not simply about a maths or a science pass, but helping the students gain access to further education opportunities in technical careers. She notes there is a shortage of engineers in the country and, through this project, it is hoped that maths and science students will pursue this career.

The Engineering Council of South Africa’s (ECSA’s) Engenius programme manager, Liesel Kirsten, concurs and adds that by targeting schools which deliver good results in mathematics and science, such as the Dinaledi schools, learners could be inspired to successfully enter engineering studies.

Kirsten says that the problem is that learners do not have engineering role models and also do not have an understanding of how the profession is shaping their world and con- sequently do not even consider the possi- bility of choosing engineering as a career.

ECSA’s Engenius programme seeks to complement the Dinaledi initiative by ensuring that, through various partner organisations, learners and teachers discover how engineering professionals shape their world and that fun engineering activities are provided through workshops provided by young engineering professionals.


“We need to motivate learners at an early age to develop the necessary interest for studying engineering. Once they have a dream to study engineering, this will also encourage them to do well in mathematics and the sciences.”

Fear Factor
Despite the positive response since the project has been implemented, there are still some challenges that schools are dealing with. “Although we have seen an increase in maths and science subjects, learner confidence is still at a low because they are afraid of maths and science – they believe these are subjects that will cause them to fail and choose maths literacy instead,” explains Creecy.

The Dinaledi programme is now also focused on increasing the number of learners in these schools through motivational sessions. Attention will be given to improving learner performance in all grades through learner support programmes,” says Lesufi. Another challenge is the skills shortage in teaching maths and science.

The DBE has initiated the Funza Lushaka bursary programme to help deal with these challenges. It is a multiyear programme that promotes teaching in public schools. The bursaries enable eligible students to complete a full teaching qualification in a subject-related area of national priority.

“We are working with Funza Lushaka bursary holders to increase the pool of maths and science educators and we also have a mentoring programme, which helps teachers to prepare themselves adequately for the education arena,” Creecy explains.

Besides ECSA’s efforts through Engenius, which could be perceived as enlightened self-interest, various other organisations and companies are extending a helping hand to the Dinaledi Schools Project. In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), maths and science teacher development agency the Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education (Casme) has trained some of the teachers of the participating Dinaledi schools to improve the knowledge transfer from teachers to students.

“Casme was contracted by the department for a period of three years to do teacher training for maths and science. We developed block training sessions for the teachers and provided them with resource material for the training programme, manuals on the content, as well as strategies they can use in the classrooms,” says Casme deputy director Henre Benson.

The block sessions were presented during the school holidays – five days in January and another five in July – focusing on maths and science at further education and training level from grade 10 to 12. Casme trained about 400 teachers from the 80 KZN Dinaledi schools.

“Since starting the training sessions, we have noticed some changes in student-teacher interaction in classrooms. There has been a significant change in teacher communication with students. They are now able to communicate effectively with students and establish confidence in their knowledge-transfer skills, as well as in the effective delivery of the content,” says Benson.

He notes one of the major concerns was that teachers were deliberately skipping certain work chapters, which they felt they could not teach. “Through the training session, we were able to provide them with basic strategies they could use in the classroom.”

Such initiatives are in line with the NPC’s vision for a strong teacher base in schools – particularly in maths and science. “Teachers are central to education and teaching. It is particularly important that there are highly qualifieds math and science teachers.”

In addition to teacher training, Casme has also developed a diagnostics approach in the teacher-training programme, which provided teachers with strategies to diagnose students’ weak points.

“We saw that some learners had gaps in their foundational knowledge and we were able to provide teachers with ways to diagnose these learners, giving them the opportunity to provide some kind of remediation for the students,” explains Benson.

Problems Persist
Although the focus has shifted from teaching sessions to the learners, there are still some challenges and concerns about the programme. “The programme has not been perfectly executed. Some schools that are under the Dinaledi umbrella are not well supported and simply carry the Dinaledi name,” Benson points out,

“There is a higher expectation for these schools to deliver a certain number of passes at a certain level. The support to help these schools deliver is what we are lacking,” he says.

To deal with the challenge, Dinaledi launched the adopt-a-school project, which promotes high-quality teaching and learning, and encourages performance in maths and science. It also mobilises resources for schools and coordinates private-sector support for them.

Adopt-a-School
A significant supporter is financial services group Standard Bank, which has adopted 115 of the 588 Dinaledi schools, and makes a yearly contribution of R50 000 to each participating schools.

Working closely with the schools, the bank group has identified challenges that have previously resulted in poor performance.

“We conducted a baseline study to determine the needs of each school and found there were three concerns that affected the performance, or lack thereof, of students and teachers,” explains Standard Bank head of corporate social investment Nomsa Masuku.

Instead of going to Dinaledi schools with the intention of focusing solely on maths and science, the bank group has looked at the bigger picture to identify the underlying issues and assess the areas where things are falling apart.

“In most schools, security inside and out-side was a problem. Physiosocial issues and hunger were the most prominent problems that we felt we should deal with in order to assist the schools in regaining focus on teaching,” Masuku explains.

Attention has therefore been given to whether schools have the necessary materials to do the work, including textbooks and lab equipment.

“We have placed field workers at all the schools to keep track of the progress the schools are making. Our Dinaledi schools have done significantly better during the four years that we have been involved in the project,” she explains.

Notwithstanding such goodwill and support, the problem of poor maths and science teaching and learning is a deeply worrying one. It is going to require a massive push from government, in partnership with a skills- hungry private sector, to overcome these problems.

It is also apparent that, while financial resources are undoubtedly important, it will be just as crucial to build a culture – not only in schools, but also in society as a whole – that truly values science and maths as the main building blocks of any personal and societal progress and prosperity.

Edited by: Terence Creamer
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