Maths teachers are in alarmingly short supply in South Africa

South Africa's mathematics and science education ranks as one of the worst in the world and continues to spiral downward. Partly influenced by difficult teaching conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the math pass rate dropped from 54.6% in 2019 to 53.8% in 2020.
That means nearly half of math students in South Africa are failing.

One of the reasons for our dismal math performance is a lack of qualified math teachers. In 2015, the Centre for Development and Enterprise predicted that South Africa will need around 456,000 teachers by 2023. By 2018, the public education system had 410,000 teachers, with math teachers in particular short supply.

While the DBE has a plan to circumvent a shortage of teachers, math education isn’t likely to improve overnight.

Why is there a shortage of math teachers?

The math teacher shortage is part of the overall shortage of teachers in the country that is driven by the following factors.
  • As teachers exit, not enough new teachers are entering it. The number of teachers graduating each year is simply not keeping pace with the demand for teachers on the ground.

  • Poor salaries and working conditions drive many teachers out the door. Teachers face a lack of resources and overcrowded classrooms. Legislation that limits classroom discipline also means teachers are exposed to blatant disrespect, ridicule and even aggressive behaviour from students with no recourse to address it.

  • Teachers battling corruption eventually quit. Some school officials accept bribes to employ unqualified or under-qualified teachers to fill the teaching gap. In other instances, teachers are overlooked or not given preference if they belong to a certain teacher union or political party.

  • Some schools have simply dropped maths as a subject in certain grades while others offer a math literacy subject instead.
The shortage of teachers is likely to deepen in coming years. The 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that the average age of the South African teacher was 43 years and 32% of teachers were 50 years and older. That means there’ll be an exodus of retiring teachers in the next 10-20 years.

How the math teacher shortage affects the country’s future

Mathematics is one of those gateway subjects considered critical for a country’s economic growth and development. Therefore, the continuing decline in maths teachers and subsequent student performance is a cause for great concern when it comes to the country’s future.

Unqualified teachers provide a poor standard of education that results in declining pass rates. With low grades, many students will not be accepted at universities for degrees that require math.

With fewer math and science graduates, we face a crippling skills shortage in careers that require these skills, such as engineering, science, technology and medical careers. This will have a detrimental effect on the country’s development.

How can we turn the situation around?

The solution to South Africa’s math crisis may be a combined effort between government and private educational institutions.

The Department of Basic Education has expressed its commitment to strengthening the quality of mathematics education and taken the the following steps to achieve that:
  • Reintroduced math in Grades 10 to 12 in almost all schools across the country.

  • Implemented the Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST) plan with a target to increase the number of math learners eligible for bachelors programmes in math and science to 450,000 by 2030.

  • Introduced a third math subject, technical mathematics, in 2016 for learners interested in pursuing a technical trade such as plumber, electrician or fitter and turner.

  • Implemented the Basic Education Employment Initiative. Now in Phase 2, the programme aims to employ 287,000 youth in teacher assistant and general assistant positions between 1 November 2021 and 31 March 2022. Young people who wish to continue with a career in education will be directed to the appropriate options available.
Furthermore, the DBE should prioritise supporting teachers with ongoing training, better working conditions, resources and pay. Teacher unions should hold them accountable to achieve these goals.

Other steps that can be taken to improve math education:
  • Unqualified teachers should be encouraged to acquire a formal qualification through a teacher training college or by completing an online degree in mathematics.

  • Independent private math schools can fill the gap faced in public schools. For example, Advantage Learn is an online education company that offers math lessons for Grades 8 to 12, as well as an Advanced Programme Mathematics course to help prepare students for university.

  • Incorporate alternative math education techniques, such as the soroban math technique. This active learning technique is producing amazing results among young learners. The Soroban is a Japanese abacus that teaches children to calculate and improve their ability to do mental math.
With the right teacher training and support systems in place, we can attract more math teachers to the profession. And with private math schools filling in any gaps, we can improve the quality of math education and prevent a math skills shortage in the future.

About Boris Dzhingarov

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