South African maths ranking-What now?

By: MathsGenius Leadership Institute
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ALL, South Africa - June 4, 2014 - PRLog -- 03 June 2014 | Johannesburg | MGLI

“South Africa's ranking as worst in the world for its maths and science education is "a state of emergency", the opposition has said. The Democratic Alliance called for a full skills audit of all maths, science and technology teachers”, wrote a BBC correspondent. This calls for all maths and science education stakeholders in the country to get together and formulate a proper way of evaluating progress that is not biased and value-laden and not be quick to adopt poorly formulated foreign reports that do not add value to the country’s well-being.

The controversy is as a result of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on ICT readiness of countries. Maths and science have been the trending topics for the last few days across South Africa as a result of the WEF report.

I will not dwell on the authenticity of the report, but as a matter of opinion I am inclined to say it has serious flaws and is not representative of what is happening on the ground as no education practitioners were surveyed, no tests or challenges were presented to learners to prove their knowledge level and the study was more of a sentiment analysis among business executives who have no idea of what is happening on the ground.

A report that gives a better indication of performance is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). According to Wikipediait is a series of international assessments of the mathematics and science knowledge of students around the world. The participating students come from a diverse set of educational systems (countries or regional jurisdictions of countries) in terms of economic development, geographical location, and population size. In each of the participating educational systems, a minimum of 4,500 to 5,000 students are evaluated. Furthermore, for each student, contextual data on the learning conditions in mathematics and science are collected from the participating students, their teachers and their principals via separate questionnaires. TIMSS is one of the studies established by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement ( (IEA) aimed at allowing educational systems to compare students' educational achievement and learn from the experiences of others in designing effective education policy. This study was first conducted in 1995, and has been performed every 4 years thereafter. In most of the cycles the study assesses 4th and 8th grade students. Therefore, some of the participating educational systems have trend data across assessments from 1995 to 2011.

The TIMMS report is a better measure as it is based on empirical evidence and helps in crafting intervention measures on specific areas of the subjects. The main deficiency of the TIMMS report is that it is only administered at Grade 4 and Grade 8 which is not cross-cutting and giving a global view of the educational system’s performance.

The variance between the TIMMS report and maths proficiency at the FET phase is huge as South African public and private entities have invested heavily into maths at the FET phase through Saturday classes, matric camps and other programs and these efforts are not measured in the TIMMS report.

The government of South Africa has come out strongly and rejected the WEF report as not significant and I for one will not blame them as it has fundamental flaws. For sceptics and conspiracy theorists, the WEF report is fertile ground to come up with many stories.

My story is that WEF is on a mission to perpetuate poverty In Africa by proliferating and disseminating the message that “Africans are useless at mathematics”. South Africa is strategic in Africa and its failure in maths and science is a serious dent on the rise of the continent. As part of African Renaissance it is necessary that we come up with our own measures of performance from inflation, exchange rate and all essential measures. We cannot rely on foreign reports and then we just simply plug and play as though we have no capacity to measure our progress.

The message that is being passed around in the country is that maths and science cannot be done and the WEF report has rubber-stamped that fact and I am sure this is the new version of colonial thinking which seeks to denigrate African states especially.

Now that the damage has been done, it is necessary that all stakeholders in South African education engage and come up with a concrete, evidence-based report on the real performance of learners in maths and science. For how long shall the country allow itself to be subjected to poorly crafted external reports which are self-serving and value-laden? The Democratic Alliance did not do its homework and ran around trying to score political points without properly scrutinising the report. It is worthwhile for the DA to reflect and not be sensationalists that conclude causality based on no evidence. I speak not as a member of any party but as a sober judge who has seen folly.

Over the next few weeks The Department of Basic Education has to be on its toes running around to find means and ways of giving us the true reflection of maths and science education in South Africa. The fact that company executives interviewed have that negative perception is evidence enough that not enough is being done by NGOs, corporates, social entrepreneurs and government to celebrate the successful interventions and demystifying maths and science.

To all maths stakeholders in South Africa, MathsGenius Leadership Institute is conducting and in-depth analysis of best practices in maths intervention programmes. You can fill in the questionnaire on

It is time Africa takes a stand and dictates its own path to success and not wait for the “foreign master” to prescribe, the time for that is over and Africa is rising. Sovereignty is everything and we have the expertise to come up with better reports and not this pathetically poor WEF report.

Edzai C. Zvobwo is the CEO of MathsGenius Leadership Institute (MGLI). He is a renowned mathematics researcher and motivational author and a certified monitoring and evaluation expert. He can be contacted at

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