Critical Issues in School Mathematics and Science
The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), as a body of natural and human scientists, has an important role to play in providing government and members of society with evidence-based information that can be used to influence policy and guide decisions for the benefit of society. The ASSAf Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Standing Committee organised a forum to deliberate on critical issues in school mathematics and science education and to make concrete proposals on how the situation can be improved. The state of science and mathematics in South African schools has frequently been termed a national crisis. South African learners have fared poorly in comparative tests of science and mathematics at both international and regional levels and in local bench mark tests. This is true at both primary and secondary levels. These averaged results mark a very wide disparity between our learners: a small minority continue to make significant progress in these subjects, while the majority fail to perform at appropriate levels. As a result, the pool of potential scientists, engineers, health practitioners and future teachers of mathematics and science is severely limited. This, in turn, limits South Africa’s ability to be internationally competitive, as well as its ability to provide the infrastructure needed for the well-being of the majority of its people. 2009 was a seminal year for education in South Africa as the first recipients of the new National Senior Certificate (NSC) entered higher education, and in larger numbers than in the past. The NSC, and particularly the requirements related to Mathematics and entry into higher education (HE), succeeded in releasing what was a considerable blockage to entry to HE. Early indications were that overall student performance in science-based programmes at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) was below that of previous years. The larger intake resulted in larger numbers of students performing very poorly in their mid-year assessments. HEIs have mounted various interventions to prevent a large failure rate of first year students. What has become clear is that the knowledge and skills with which students who obtained an NSC in 2008 entered HEIs were different from either the knowledge or skills that HEIs expect students to have or from those held by entering students in the past. The situation highlighted the need for an in-depth look at school mathematics and science – the curricula, how they are taught, how they are assessed and how teachers are prepared to teach them –and the interface with science and mathematics at higher education level. In the process, issues related to transformation, equity and social justice were also discussed.