Over 300 schools in South Africa are dropping maths as a subject choice for learners, according to the Solidarity-affiliated Union for Afrikaans Maths Teachers (VAW), as learners opt for easier versions of the subject, such as maths literacy.

Speaking to Rapport, VAW noted that most of the schools to drop maths are schools in poorer communities. The list was acquired from the Department of Basic Education, it said.

Teachers unions speaking to Rapport described the situation as disastrous, and indicative of the government putting headlines over pass marks, and limiting the prospects of learners.

University degrees in the sciences and engineering typically don’t count maths literacy when looking at maths passes for entry requirements, and a number of scholarships and bursaries on offer in this field also specifically exclude maths literacy.

Head of curriculum studies at the University of Stellenbosch, Michael le Coredeur said that learners are told from a young age that maths is difficult, putting them off the subject.

He also said that little teaching of maths actually takes place in the classroom, with most learners being coached for exams based purely on past papers, while good teachers are quickly snapped up by the private sector because of the poor salaries in the public sector.

Declining numbers

The number of high school students electing to take subjects which are vital to the economy such as accounting, mathematics and physical sciences is on a steady decline.

The number of students taking mathematics declined from 263,903 in 2015, to 222,034 in 2019 (a decline of 16%) – with just 121,179 of those students passing the subject this year.

Meanwhile, the number of students taking physical sciences declined from 193,189 in 2015, to 164,478 in 2019 (a decline of 15%) – with just 124,237 of those students passing the subject this year.

Both Umalusi and the Department of Basic of Education have raised concerns about the country’s ‘stagnant’ maths marks.

The subject does not seem to be progressing in tandem with cognate subjects in terms of learner performances, said Umalusi chairperson John Volmink.

“For example, performance in physical science seems to be improving year by year, but performance in mathematics is not showing any signs of improvement.

“It is not any worse but it is not any better – it’s just at the same place.”

There were 14,178 fewer learners taking pure mathematics in matric in 2019 compared to the year before, while the number of learners taking maths literacy increased by 6,362.

Furthermore, Volmink said that there are concerns about the number of candidates that are sitting to write the mathematics exam compared to the increasing number of pupils who are instead opting to write mathematical literacy.

He added that authorities may need to think about how it can stem this trend, and that there is a ‘fundamental problem’ with how mathematics is being taught in South African classrooms.

“Things such as problem-solving skills must be developed and the confidence to deal with not only routine problems but non-routine problems must be nurtured.”

Read: Concern over South Africa’s matric maths marks