Children not learning maths: an unequal system in SA

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at The University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix and Sunningdale). She has a PhD and two MA degrees in social sciences. Picture: Supplied

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at The University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix and Sunningdale). She has a PhD and two MA degrees in social sciences. Picture: Supplied

Published Mar 28, 2024



Human Rights Day has passed. Could South Africans really celebrate it? Another year of democracy has passed. Ideally, it should represents equity, growth and development for all.

The UN Global Human Rights clause explains that despite one’s nationality, ethnicity, language, sex, religion or any other form of status, every human being has the right to work and the right to education.

Globally, there has been a surge of unemployment. The teaching and learning crisis deepened when the world experienced multiple school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The World Bank blogs and other communication digital platforms have reiterated that teaching and learning challenges are no longer confined to developing nations.

While the world has been grappling with new educational technological advancements, such as AI learning tools and the development of new career trajectories globally, South Africans are struggling with an unequal educational system.

Since 2020, the Human Development Index in South Africa has illustrated that various schools in South Africa have access to various types and levels of education, therefore, we can question its long-term sustainable value.

A trajectory that depicts a skewed illustration of an unequal education perpetuates inequality in a country that was intended to transform to correct the injustices of the past.

In 2020, an Amnesty International report stated that children who attended the top 200 schools in South Africa achieved more distinctions in maths than children attending the remaining 6 600 schools combined.

Other alarming statistics are described in the Human Development Index 2022, which emphasises the need for the government to prioritise a major transition.

The report indicates that the education South African children receive is inadequate and inappropriate and, therefore, it is a central reason why they are not prepared for entering the world of formal and global employment.

A good education has to include language and maths skills. It has been globally researched and documented that maths is a fundamental part of human thought and logic and helps one understand themselves and the world.

Its biggest impact on early learning is that it encourages logical reasoning, critical thinking and mental rigour. In addition, the basics of maths allow us to effectively sequence daily life chores, such as tasks at work, grocery lists, the calculations of daily, weekly and monthly expenditures and even cooking.

Without having a sound understanding of proportion and measurement, relevant and purposeful understanding and management of one’s own life could be a challenge.

Despite the value of the skills, our government schools are discouraging pupils from pursuing pure maths as a school subject and encouraging them to pursue maths literacy instead.

The motivations and the need to question this approach are vital for developing a sustainable equitable education that can adequately prepare our youth for employment.

In many schools ranked quintile 3 (no fee schools) and below, there need to be better-qualified teachers. Some of the teachers have yet to pursue maths as a teaching subject and, therefore, struggle to teach it.

Another reason is that schools are struggling with high failure rates in maths in Grade 12. This impacts the school records of pass rates and public image.

Traditionally, schools attracted learners based on their successful pass rates. A stance to steer children away from maths also makes it easier for some schools to meet the goals and criteria stipulated by the Department of Basic Education.

The Human Development Index Report 2022 indicated that approximately 5 000 teachers in South Africa were underqualified or lacked the appropriate qualifications. That has a detrimental impact on what children were taught and how they were taught.

Schools with the resources to employ skilled teachers serve only a section of our population. This positions the learners at privileged schools in an optimal position to financially elevate themselves with a career in the sciences and access university and other tertiary educational institutions.

Most learners are left lagging behind, without being allowed to develop such pertinent life skills. Maths skills are central to developing sound entrepreneurship skills.

Are we not, in this instance, replicating the Bantu Education system of the apartheid regime? And the primary question remains: How are we dealing with an unequal education system?

Some children are developing themselves further and reaching their potential, which is allowing them to improve the overall quality of their lives. In contrast, other children need to be more adequately educated at school and are left to learn independently in later years.

Accessibility and affordability to education are central and critical, but should we not collectively assess and systematically evaluate what skills we are providing to our children? Should there not be regulations and policies that enable all children to develop on the same platform, so that they are not lagging behind in the long term?

The need for the government to assess and investigate the impact of the value of specific school subjects and why they are offered is critical. These types of interventions would help our education system become practical and purposeful. Without attention to the developments, the trajectory of an unequal society will perpetuate.

The ideal proposal would be for more and more teachers to be skilled in maths and for the public to be increasingly informed of the benefits of their child perusing maths at school. In recent years, the government has identified the need for children to become far more literate, but the skills to measure, count and weigh are being sidelined.

An urgent need to address the challenge is required. South Africans need to be aware of the long-term impact on their child if they do not have maths as a school subject when they enrol.

The most significant negative factor is that one’s career choices are limited, and many degrees and qualifications become inaccessible to matriculants. Subject choice and relevant skill development are central to long-term improvement for the individual and society at large.

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix and Sunningdale). She has a PhD and two MA degrees in the social sciences.

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