Why the pupils can’t do the maths 

Schools’ drive to get good pass rates and lack of skilled teachers play a role

Subject selection for high school pupils getting into Further Education and Training (FET) phase, points to the route they might take in their post-school qualification.

The value that the subjects hold, in terms of the number of points they’re worth when students apply at higher education institutions, can be the difference between the student qualifying for the academic programme they want to pursue or not.

The selection process becomes problematic when pupils have to balance it against subjects they’re strong in, and therefore likely to pass to get through Grade 12.

Schools get their Grade 12 pass rate targets from the districts and provincial education departments on the marks they need to score. So when Grade 9 pupils choose their subjects, it’s common for them to be encouraged or pressured by their schools to pick subjects they’re likely to pass – and not necessarily the ones they need to pursue in the FET programmes of their choice.

Maths literacy which has been criticised as a “useless” subject, is one of the subjects pupils have been taking up either through coercion or for the sake of “passing, Children take maths literacy because they think they’ll pass (and) not necessarily because it’s easy,” said Maggie Makgoba, president of the Professional Education Union.

Another problem she added, was that most people considered the traditional academic route of enrolling with universities as the only viable option for post-school qualification.

“The academic route is not for everybody. We still need technical people like electrical engineers and technicians who can pursue their studies at FET colleges.

“Maths literacy is suitable for such people who don’t need pure maths.” Makgoba said. The problem with maths in the schooling system was the shortage of suitably qualified teachers to teach pure maths. Because of the shortage of maths teachers, maths has been demonized as a difficult subject. If you don’t have the basic skills to do pure maths, you can’t learn in high school. You need to grasp maths in the foundation phase.”

Makgoba said the issue of children being forced to take maths literacy because of low maths pass rate, was exacerbated by the fact that pupils were assessed on their attitudes only when they left  the schooling system, either in Grade 9 and 12. She said external assessments should be introduced after each phase – after Grade 3 and 6, in Grade 9 and then in Grade 12. “We only look at the pupil’s skills in Grade 12 (so) we don’t know what they know before then. The current system pushes pupils to Grade 12 (and) only after the pupils fail
do they consider going to FET colleges,” she said.

The Star 2 October 2012 – Abridged.