Only 28% of learners take mathematics in South Africa, and 45% of them get less than 30%

The latest figures on 2020 matric enrollment show the steady failure of the country to deliver satisfactory mathematics education.

This is nothing new, with the shocking downward trend in South African mathematics education reflected in the matric results every year.

Last year’s figures show that out of the 787,717 students who wrote matric examinations, only 222,034 (28%) wrote mathematics. Of those who wrote, 45% did not achieve a passing grade of above 30%.

This year’s matric exams are set to start on 5 November 2020 and will run until 15 December 2020, with 1,058,699 candidates registered to write these examinations.

This includes full-time and part-time candidates, as well as those candidates who were supposed to have written examinations in June this year, which were cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

However, the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education has raised concerns over the falling number of students who have registered for Mathematics.

“It looks like our learners are running away from this,” said committee chairperson Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba. “However, it then becomes difficult when they want to register for certain programmes at institutions of higher learning.”

The Department of Basic Education, however, assured her that the class of 2020 covered the full spectrum of the curriculum, and that “the introduction of technical mathematics and technical physical science has contributed to lower registration rates for pure mathematics”.

Technical Mathematics vs Mathematics Literacy

Technical Mathematics (also called Applied Mathematics) is a relatively new subject that is aimed at preparing matrics for work in a trade.

The differences between the three mathematics subjects are detailed below:

Subject Content University
Mathematics Standard mathematics curriculum – including trigonometry, calculus, algebra, etc. Can study at university
Mathematics Literacy Easier than mathematics. Everyday calculations such as budgeting and interest.  Can study at university, but will usually be excluded from studying technical such as engineering, IT, accounting, chemistry, and more.
Technical Mathematics Prepares learners for careers such as an electrician, fitter, plumber. No university exemption – only able to study at a technical college.

It is plain from the table above that Technical Mathematics is a less favourable option for those wanting to study at a university, as it will only allow you to study at a technical college.

Therefore, the department’s assurance that the steep decline in students registering for Mathematics is due to increased registrations for Technical Mathematics infers that this will lead to an equivalent drop in the number of students who are able to study sorely-needed skills at universities, such as engineering, software development, and more.

The most recent data shows that only 245,005 matric students enrolled for mathematics for the 2020 examinations – more than 11,000 fewer than in 2019.

On the other hand, the number of Mathematics Literacy enrolments increased from 349,338 in 2019 to 358,883 in 2020 – an increase of more than 9,000.

Decline in mathematics students and performance

University of Cape Town professor Suellen Shay has criticised the decline in mathematics reflected in South Africa’s matric results for 2019.

The number of students who wrote mathematics has continued to drop every year, and the pass rate is down to only 54%.

The minimum score for a mathematics passing grade is 30%.

“The drop in numbers of pupils writing the grade 12 mathematics exam should be of great concern,” Shay states.

“Performance in mathematics matters for university entrance. Without it, school leavers are not eligible for programmes at university in science or engineering or some in commerce.”

She added that a pass mark of 30% may secure university entrance, but it is too low to adequately prepare students to succeed at a university level.

This decline in performance and the subsequent devaluation of a passing grade in mathematics bodes ill for the ongoing skills shortage in the country, considering the steady trend away from Mathematics and towards Mathematics Literacy, despite the former becoming easier to pass over the years.

Maths falling, Maths Literacy climbing

The number of students who enrolled in Mathematics and Mathematics Literacy over the past four years is shown in the graph below.

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Only 28% of learners take mathematics in South Africa, and 45% of them get less than 30%