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    Learners need sufficient grounding in STEM subjects to ensure a sound future

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    Maths and science education is critical for higher education, for skilled jobs and, ultimately, for national economies. Yet despite an intense focus from not only governments but also the private sector, which has committed significant funding to extracurricular learning opportunities, learner achievement remains a work in progress.

    At the end of last year the South African Department of Basic Education served up some shocking truths: global benchmarking revealed that 63% of learners in the country lacked basic maths knowledge, and an even higher 72% lacked basic science knowledge.

    In Kenya, a 10-year study of performance in high-school maths between 1999 and 2008 saw national mean scores range from just 12.23% to 18.73%, while Nigeria fared little better. In that country, according to the West Africa Examination Council, which tracked learners’ performance in maths from 1991 to 2016, the average mark recorded for that period was just 27.3%.

    This poor performance is, however, not confined to Africa, even though African countries are among those where children struggle most with the subject, says Ishola Salami, a lecturer in the Department of Early Childhood Education at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan. It’s a challenge that continues to absorb researchers around the world because, he says, maths is the bedrock for the development of scientific reasoning.

    ‘Not only is mathematics the basis of skills, it’s also the basis of attitudes that make an individual functional and productive in society. It’s a tool for solving problems at all levels,’ he writes in the Conversation Africa.

    The WEF says it is critical that learners study STEM subjects in order to create a more employable workforce, and the AU has been clear that prioritising science, maths and technology education is essential to drive economic prosperity and industrialisation on the continent.

    ‘Education and work in sub-Saharan Africa will determine the livelihoods of nearly a billion people in the region, and drive growth and development for generations to come. As one of the youngest populations in the world, it is imperative that adequate investments are made in education and learning that holds value in the labour market, and prepares citizens for the world of tomorrow,’ the WEF stresses in its executive briefing on the Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa.

    The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already under way, and it demands proficiency in STEM subjects to help address challenges including unemployment, inequality and financial exclusion. It’s also common cause that a quality STEM-driven education system is where countries begin to prepare for the future of work, by cultivating the volume of scientists, researchers and engineers who will ultimately secure their long-term sustainability in a highly competitive global economy.

    Yet results in the field of STEM across the continent are certainly not keeping pace. And experts agree that this won’t change without a willingness to nurture and guide learners to STEM education, and to train the teachers who are tasked with effectively producing optimal results.

    Results late last year showed that South Africa had once again performed dismally in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019 (TIMMS), which benchmarks learners against their contemporaries around the globe. At the beginning of 2020, the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education (Umalusi) noted that while matric physical science marks had shown improvement, the same was not true for maths. The country recorded a 33.6% matric pass rate at bachelor level in 2018, up from just 18% in 1994, but only 21.7% and 29.9% of learners passed maths and science at 50% and above respectively.

    In addition, there were also fewer learners writing the maths exam, against an increasing number opting to write maths literacy. This prompted Umalusi chairperson John Volmink to posit at the time that the ‘shackles of bantu education, that black children and women should not be taught mathematics and science, still casts a shadow over the education system’.

    Another point made by the Department of Basic Education that demands further attention is the claim that South African educators had attended the highest number of professional courses compared to other countries. ‘However, learners’ mathematics and science achievements do not match the level of tertiary education and the extent of professional development courses that educators have attended,’ according to the department.

    Given the massive investment in education and training, by governments as well as the private sector, it was certainly fair comment to say that the quality of this investment should be investigated, and strengthened. In 2019, according to findings from the 22nd edition of the annual Trialogue Business in Society handbook, companies spent an estimated ZAR10.2 billion on CSI in South Africa – with education being supported by 94% of surveyed companies.

    However, they still contribute just 1% to 1.5% of what the government spends on education, says Nick Rockey, MD of Trialogue, a South African pioneer in the fields of CSI and sustainability. Hence, he stresses, interventions still need to be targeted if they are to achieve the necessary impact.

    Another concern, Rockey told the CSI Forum: Maths and Science Education, was that learner-focused maths and science programmes tend to target those who have already displayed potential in these subjects. ‘While that’s important, forum delegates agreed on the crucial need to intervene at as early a stage as possible to ensure a continuum of learner support,’ he said.

    Analysing the common impediments to optimal outcomes during learners’ educational journeys, Salami makes reference to a study that he and a colleague conducted into maths performance in a Nigerian primary school. Seeking to determine the point at which maths performance declines, they noticed a big drop in the third year of primary school. At that level in Nigeria, he writes, methods of instruction are teacher-centred and in a foreign language for the first time. ‘We concluded that performance fell dramatically at this point because the content of the lessons, the methods used to teach it and the resources used all made the subject unfamiliar and unappealing.’

    An education with maths and science will equip learners with skills suited to sustainable employment

    In South Africa, Craig Pournara, associate professor of mathematics education at the University of the Witwatersrand, explains in an article on the university’s website that learners must choose between maths and maths literacy after Grade 9, for their remaining three years of high school. While maths is essential for entrance to science-based programmes at university level, he stresses that a majority of learners actually lack the requisite knowledge to cope with the maths curriculum from Grade 10 onwards.

    Suellen Shay, professor at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Higher Education Development, concurs. ‘The drop in numbers of pupils writing the Grade 12 mathematics exam should be of great concern,’ she says. ‘Performance in mathematics matters. Without it, school leavers are not eligible for programmes at university in science or engineering, or some in commerce.’ The knock-on impact of this reality, she warns, is that it runs contrary to the needs of Industry 4.0, which requires highly competent graduates in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths.

    ‘Strong performance in mathematics is essential for careers in computing, programming, finance and machine learning,’ according to Shay. The decline in matric maths performance in South Africa, she explains, can be measured in two ways: the reduction from 270 516 in 2018 to 222 034 learners writing the final maths exam in 2019, and the fact that just 54% of learners who wrote the exam actually passed – down from 58% in 2018. With a matric pass mark of 30%, this means that only just more than half of all candidates could score at least 30%.

    Although the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 disrupted education efforts across the board, with resource-poor countries hardest hit, the consequences for maths and science education specifically – and the all-important funding from the private sector – have yet to be quantified. Pournara has cautioned that there is already evidence that, by the end of Grade 9, maths learners in less well-resourced schools are generally four years behind their counterparts in well-resourced schools.

    ‘It is therefore likely that most Grade 9 learners will fall further behind in 2020,’ he writes, citing the 2005 Pakistan earthquakes as a comparison. Research from that country found that learners who had an enforced break from school of just three months were still 1.5 years behind their peers four years later.

    What is certain is that maths is more sensitive to pandemic-related schooling disruptions than other subjects. As a result, Africa would do well to prepare for the still unquantified ‘COVID slide’ that looks likely to exacerbate existing challenges into the future.

    By Di Caelers
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images