Divide over mathematics proposal

The Department of Basic Education is considering amending policy to remove mathematics as a compulsory pass subject for Grade 1 to Grade 12.

Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education, said they had embarked on a broad consultation process with educationists, assessment experts, higher education institutions, parents and members of the public on the amendments to the foundation, intermediate and senior phase pass requirements.

Mr Mhlanga said a task team established by Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga, in 2009, to investigate poor curriculum implementation in schools, had recommended, among others, changes to the programme and promotion requirements in the foundation, intermediate and senior phase.

The National Curriculum Statement, Grade R to 12, was approved as national policy and gazetted in September 2011 and it contained the new promotion and progression requirements. The requirement for pupils from Grade R to Grade 9 is that pupils attain a moderate achievement (Level 3) (40% to 49%) in mathematics in addition to the other requirements as spelled out in the National Curriculum Statement. The Further Education and Training (FET) phase (grades 10 to 12) has different requirements.

“The new promotion requirements are not aligned with the National Senior Certificate (NSC) promotion requirements, which is the national benchmark. Hence there is a need to align the promotion requirements across the foundation, intermediate and senior phase with the FET band,” said Mr Mhlanga.

“The department has been monitoring the implementation of the new requirements in provinces. It was apparent from the 2014 mid-year performance, that the new promotion requirements were adversely affecting the performance of learners at school level,” he said.

Mr Mhlanga said the DBE issued a National Assessment Circular 3 of 2015 to allow for the adjustment of marks in 2016. “Given the adverse impact of the compulsory pass requirement of mathematics at 40%, a special condonation dispensation for mathematics was applied.

“Based on National Assessment Circular 3 of 2016, learners who passed all other subjects, but failed mathematics with a minimum mark of 20%, were condoned and would thus pass mathematics and pass the examination as a whole,” he said.

The proposal that will be consulted relating to the senior phase will include; passing four subjects at 40%, one of which is a home language, passing any other four subjects at 30%; and mathematics removed as a compulsory promotion requirement.

He said this proposal was aligned to the current requirements in the Further Education Training (FET) band. “Once discussed internally and externally, approved and promulgated the relevant policy and curriculum changes will be communicated to all relevant stakeholder bodies by means of official curriculum and examination circulars. At this point this is merely an issue for internal discussion and broader public consultation,” he said.

Riyaad Najaar, chairperson of the Progressive Principal’s Association (PPA) and principal of Spine Road High school in Rocklands, a maths and science focus school, said maths is a gateway subject and removing it as a compulsory subject would disadvantage pupils, especially if they would like to study at a university.

“This will send the wrong message to pupils and will minimise opportunities. Taking it away will not encourage pupils to push boundaries and work hard. I think that there should be more focus on improving resources and improve the quality of maths teachers.

“Also, what will their NSC look like without maths? It will mean nothing because this is a crucial subject,” he said.

Mr Najaar’s advice to parents is to encourage pupils to keep the subject, push through and work hard.

South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said while pass requirements had to be revised from time to time, the education department must also examine the effect it would have on pupils who want to study further.

Universities felt many students spent too much time in bridging courses, Mr Maluleke said, and pass marks at schools needed to equip pupils with the skills and confidence to survive tertiary education.

Sadtu would the new proposed amendments, and make recommendations to the department, Mr Maluleke said.

“Promotion requirements must not only be looked at from a statistical point, but also consider the skills and lessons pupils learn, pass-rate quality is very important,” Mr Maluleke said.

Professor David Holgate, head of department for Mathematics and Applied Mathematic at the University of the Western Cape, said the difficulty with school mathematics was not that pupils could not do mathematics, but that there were not enough teachers who could teach it properly.

“If we want more pupils to pass mathematics then we must teach them better, not lower the pass requirements. If we lessen the value we place on mathematics in schools then the problems which we currently experience with mathematics in our schooling system will get worse, not better,” he said.

Professor Holgate said mathematics was like a language. As a subject it was scaffolded over many years and required consistent teaching and application if pupils were to develop any mathematical facility.

“If we remove a need for a pass at any level then all subsequent levels will suffer. If we remove the need for a pass at an early stage we are essentially saying to pupils that we remove your chance of ever developing your mathematical ability,” he said.

Professor Holgate said the removal of maths would have a negative impact when pupils applied to universities.

“Access to the sciences as well as many commerce and health science degrees is simply lost if you don’t have adequate school mathematics. In a few instances an adequate pass in mathematical literacy is accepted but by and large universities need mathematics.

“Even then, if you advance through the early years of school without needing to perform in mathematics then even mathematical literacy will be out of reach,” he said.

Professor Holgate said mathematics taught logical thinking and problem solving.

He said universities were places where original thought is required and learners who have never needed to pass mathematics will not had developed such skills as well as those who did pass mathematics.

Speaking about maths teaching, Professor Holgate said where teachers were less able to teach mathematics well, lower pass rates would be more gratefully and more readily applied. “Good, well qualified mathematics teachers are a precious resource and the state needs to develop and nurture such teachers and make the teaching profession attractive to people with mathematics qualifications.

“Until this happens we will find a shortage of well-qualified mathematics teachers and this shortage will be felt more keenly in Mitchell’s Plain than in Rondebosch.

“Removing or reducing the pass requirements will simply entrench this disparity and lead to greater inequality in our society,” he said.

* Additional reporting by the Cape Times