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Matric mathematics and science: An improving trend


Mathematics and science outcomes in South Africa are improving, but more work needs to be done to meet the economy’s needs.

Over the past few weeks, various analysts have raised concerns about mathematics and science outcomes in matric, in particular pointing to lower participation rates than in 2008 and 2009.

Lower participation in mathematics and science could reflect one of two things: Either a worrying trend in which learners who might have passed these subjects are increasingly being prevented from taking them, or a justifiable trend in which schools are advocating more appropriate subject choices and it is mainly weaker learners now opting out of mathematics and science.

A careful analysis of the numbers supports the second explanation: Despite lower participation rates, the overall numbers of mathematics and physical sciences passes are actually higher than ever before.

Why has this trend occurred?

In 2008, the new National Senior Certificate was introduced, in which mathematics and maths literacy replaced the old “higher grade” and “standard grade” subjects.  Whereas mathematics was not compulsory under the previous system, under the new system all candidates must take either mathematics or maths literacy.

In the first year of the new system, it was understandably difficult for schools to settle on how many learners should enter mathematics and how many should enter maths literacy, as these subjects were not intended to correspond to the old “higher grade” and “standard grade”.

Consequently, large numbers of very weak candidates participated in mathematics in 2008.  More than 160 000 candidates took mathematics and did not pass, while 136 503 candidates passed mathematics in 2008.

Since 2008, schools have adjusted to the new system and are now facilitating better subject choices. In 2013, 98 843 candidates opted for mathematics and did not pass – substantially fewer than in 2008 (162 318).  Importantly, 142 666 learners passed mathematics in 2013 – more than ever before.

The argument that lower mathematics participation than in 2008 is a bad thing would only hold water if this led to inferior mathematics outputs overall.  But if learners with inadequate learning foundations for core mathematics are now wisely opting for maths literacy that must surely be seen as an efficiency gain in the system.

The same trend applies in Physical Sciences.  Although the 2013 participation rate was lower than in 2008, the numbers passing Physical Sciences (124 206) was higher than ever before.

In 2010 and 2011, several pieces of academic research showed that poor subject choices were the cause of many learners not passing matric.  In particular, many learners were taking mathematics who were completely unprepared (in terms of earlier skills development) to do so.

Over and above the difficulties in adjusting to the new National Senior Certificate, unreliable and lenient school-based assessment practices were also contributing to poorly informed subject choices.

The Department of Basic Education has since addressed these problems by strengthening guidance around subject choices and by taking steps to improve assessment practices in schools.  The recently introduced Annual National Assessments, for example, provide schools with high quality assessments that are set at the levels prescribed in the curriculum thus helping teachers to identify areas for remedial attention and to encourage well-informed subject choices prior to grade 12.

Having said all this, the department recognises the need to further improve mathematics and science outputs, especially to increase the number of high-level passes. This is of great strategic importance both for economic growth and in order to empower individuals with globally competitive skills.

Crucially, the way to further improving the country’s mathematics and science outcomes is not by merely encouraging more learners to participate in these subjects in matric.  It must be achieved through fundamental improvements in the quality of learning and teaching in the earlier grades.

This objective of improved quality in the earlier phases of the school system is central to all government planning around education.  It is evident in the National Development Plan, forms the basis of the Minister’s delivery agreement with the President, and it is foregrounded in the Department of Basic Education’s Action Plan: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025.

The strengthening of foundational numeracy and literacy, especially the timely acquisition of good reading skills which facilitate learning in all other subjects, is at the top of our agenda.

In order to monitor progress in these areas we have introduced the Annual National Assessments, and we have participated in several international assessments of education quality.

The most recent and rigorous of these international assessments – the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – has shown significant improvements at the grade 9 level since 2002, especially amongst schools serving poor communities.

The Department acknowledges that the levels of performance on local and international assessments is low, but the data clearly indicate that the situation is improving over time and suggest that recent interventions are bearing fruit.


Mathematics outcomes in 2008 and 2013

Trends in NSC Mathematics since 2008


Numbers wrote maths

Number passed maths

Maths pass rate

Proportion taking maths


298 821

136 503




290 407

133 505




263 034

124 749




224 635

104 033




225 874

121 970




241 509

142 666



Note: This does not include IEB candidates

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Written By: WebMaster WebMaster
Date Posted: 2/1/2015
Number of Views: 5992

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