My name is Tammy and I am a high school math teacher in South Africa. In 2012, SA was ranked last IN THE WORLD wrt to math and in 2013 we were ranked second last. Despite the fact that R253.8 billion (about $23.6 billion) was spent on education this year, we still have mud schools, ghost schools, a lack of textbooks, training and even the basics like water, electricity, desks and sometimes even teachers. Heck, two months ago a little girl died at school when she fell into the long drop (school couldn't afford normal plumbing).

So I ask you this, what can be done to improve the standard of mathematics in my country. Can you think of any initiatives or ways of helping learners?

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    $\begingroup$ It'll be hard without adequate government support, which is quite the political issue as it deals with funding. I'm inclined to say that an individual teacher cannot affect much without strong support. The only thing you could do is work on teacher training with your peers, but poverty (sadly) has been shown to be a massive disadvantage in education. You could start looking into works of Servaas van der Berg: unesco.atlasproject.eu/unesco/file/… $\endgroup$ – Chris C Jul 9 '14 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ Are you able to provide a link for the source of the rankings that you mentioned? $\endgroup$ – NiloCK Jul 9 '14 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisCunningham I was hesitant as I do not know much about the particular issue myself, just what I could quickly look up. $\endgroup$ – Chris C Jul 10 '14 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ A similar question was asked in MathOverflow, but I think the focus there was mainly on mathematics research and not mathematics education. $\endgroup$ – Joel Reyes Noche Jul 10 '14 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Since improving funding is a long shot, perhaps the immediate solution would be found in studying countries with similar poverty which are fairing better in math education. I do not know the statistics of such, but logically, that would be my approach. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jul 10 '14 at 16:52

At the recommendation, I've converted my comment into an answer.

It'll be hard without adequate government support, which is quite the political issue as it deals with funding. I'm inclined to say that an individual teacher cannot affect much without strong support. The only thing you could do is work on teacher training with your peers, but poverty (sadly) has been shown to be a massive disadvantage in education. You could start looking into works of Servaas van der Berg, one that I found being Poverty and Education.


I believe your question refers to the World Economic Formum rankings. As the government and Mail & Guardian noted in their responses, the WEF rankings are based on outside perception, not student achievement. Nevertheless, student achievement makes it clear that South Africa has among the worst education systems in the world. Although the matric pass rate for mathematics has increased recently, some have argued that the standard has decreased. The most frequently quoted stat is that the 2013 grade 9 maths average on the Annual National Assessment (ANA) was only 14%. Unfortunately, South Africa has not participated in PISA for many years, but the TIMS indicates that South Africa's grade 9's scored next to last out of forty two countries, despite the fact that in nearly all other countries the test was given to grade 8 students!

To understand South Africa's education problem it's important to go back and acknowledge that South Africa has made significant progress since the end of Apartheid. Under Bantu education, for example, black South Africans were denied any meaningful amount of mathematics education. H.F. Verwoerd famously said (back in 1953):

There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?

It's difficult to quantify the lingering effect of Bantu education now that today's students were all born after the end of apartheid in 1994, but I'd say offhand that South African maths education is recovering from Bantu education.

It is very clear that since 1994, South Africa's education system has been well funded. For example, in 2007, South Africa spent USD 1 225 per pupil, whereas Kenya (with higher maths and reading scores) spent only USD 258. Though there have been complaints about corruption (such as the Limpopo textbook fiasco ) and wastefulness, but 60% of South Africa's schools are free, and this percent is growing. South Africa's 250 000 teachers are paid reasonably well, especially considering South Africa's very high unemployment rate and low cost of living.

Now, here are some suggestions as to how South African mathematics education can improve:

1) Give teachers better training. In a test of maths teachers' content knowledge, a researcher from the University of Stellenbosch found that 5% of grade 6 pupils at disadvantaged schools know more than 20% of their teachers. The same report goes on to say that only 32% of grade 6 teachers have adequate content knowledge. Jonathan Jansen has made a compelling argument that teachers - rather than students - should write comprehensive national tests to see if they are fit for teaching. The department of education has made some effort to train teachers the recent adoption of the CAPS curriculum, and more training should be done.

Before I move on to other suggestions, I must note that this is probably the most practical thing you and I can do to improve mathematics education in South Africa. I can't think of any practical way I can solve issues 2 and 3 without becoming high up in government or education, but there are many ways to promote better maths teaching. As a second-year maths teacher outside of Pietermaritzburg, I'm currently in charge of an outreach programme at a disadvantaged school where my high school students teach maths and reading to primary school students. Another teacher in my department spends much of her assisting other maths teachers by doing demonstration lessons, teaching teachers, and supporting teachers who want to improve their results. I know of others who are encouraging schools to adopt technology and helping teachers use computer labs effectively. Others are gifted at networking between schools, fundraising, running after school programmes, etc. Anyone (including those who dislike maths) can be involved in this important work.

2) Improve relations between the teachers union (SADTU) and the department of education. Recently in KZN, SADTU has complained about low and missing teacher pay, while reports have surfaced that principal positions have been sold for R30 000. In all this, the SADTU president was recently expelled. Whatever side one takes, it's very clear that there is a lot of labor unrest in South Africa. The story of principal positions being sold is especially disheartening considering the vital role principals play in developing good teachers and removing incompetent ones.

3) Increase standards. Though the department of education has proudly announced that matric results are improving, there's little doubt that the standard of maths education has declined in recent years, especially for students taking maths literacy or receiving receive a 30% "pass". This report sums up the main criticisms well, including a high dropout rate, low pass rate, easier subjects, and high variance.

  • $\begingroup$ @JoelReyesNoche The test was given to grade 8's in most countries, but to grade 9's in South Africa, who nevertheless did very poorly. Sorry about my mistake. $\endgroup$ – David Ebert Jul 18 '14 at 11:47

As a Peace Corps Volunteer who served in South Africa, I can say that there are a whole lot of things the South African education system needs to do before it can be said to be adequate. I'll show some restraint and just suggest one thing: the foundations of mathematics can't be neglected. Especially the way South African curriculum is designed, every year builds on the previous year, so if learners are neglected one year, it becomes very hard for them to catch up. The worst-case scenario is that the teacher never goes to class until the learners are preparing for matric, and then they have to somehow learn 12 years of mathematics in one or two years.

Also, stop having departmental and union meetings in time meant for class. That's just common sense. I know that individual teachers can't just refuse to go to a meeting, but if you're not going to be in class, be honest about it in your timetable and your planning.


For me, the key to solving the problem (and I think it is generally agreed that there is a problem with maths education) is to understand the causes. I recently did a quick and dirty bit of research about the perceived causes of the problems. Many of the respondents were teachers but I also had some others.

Most people responded that the biggest causes are poor teaching and negative societal attitudes towards mathematics. The fact that the language of learning and teaching in South Africa (LoLT) is not the mother tongue is also seen as big cause. I have published my findings on a blog.

I am aware that this doesn't answer the question, but as the responses above show, there probably isn't an easy answer to the question! However, understanding the context better is surely highly important. 'The context' is enormously complex, not least because of the great differences between the best schools and the worst schools.


It is unfortunate that issues related to where one stands in international comparisons drives mathematics education in many countries, including the United States. In my experience emphasizing mathematical applications that affect one's students and doing mathematical modeling make a big difference. Examples might include how vaccination programs improve both short term health and life expectancy. How operations research ideas improve the function of government and businesses - improving municipal services (trash collection, scheduling of workerss at medical centers, etc.)


I think to improve the standard of mathematics in poor countries is not about the money, because that way of thinking is creating only an excuse and feel of disempowerment. People needs to work together to improve the quality of life by motivating each other and come up with new ideas.

As a teacher, you should propose new ideas to the management, e.g.:

  • ask management what can be done to improve the quality of the school and are there any possibilities of additional funds, if not, check how the existing costs can be improved to save some budget,

  • to get some additional funding, school management can consider to contact the right non-profit organisations or you can use some on-line sites to raise money (e.g. JustGiving, TheBigGive, etc.),

  • if school can't afford normal plumbing and there are some drop holes, use the hazard warning signs (on the internet you can find some free printable hazard warning signs) - good organisation and fresh ideas with minimal cost can save people's lives (if school doesn't have printers, just use pen and paper),

  • mud schools and ghost schools can be depressing, but the most important is the outcome and what people learns,

  • if school needs some work (e.g. plumbing, cleaning, small refurbishment) try to find some volunteers to help, involve the people and parents to make the quality of schools better,

  • a lack of textbooks can be solved by printing the materials or using some cheap mobiles, tablets or other devices which can be shared as well (the cheapest tablets are from around 700 rands, cheapest Android smartphones from 1400 rands and second-hand should be much cheaper) and you may use some free apps or math text books,

  • for water supply issues, contact the right non-profit organisations and see what can be done (see: The Water Crisis in SA, Water supply and sanitation in South Africa),
  • the electricity in South Africa is available almost everywhere, but if there is lack of it or school can't afford it, try to contact the right non-profit organisations and ask them for help,
  • some desks and other school equipment, check for non-profit charities and adverts, some people giving some stuff for free, or post the advert explaining the situation,
  • if school really can't do anything to improve the quality, consider to relocate to better area or change your school.

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