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Why aren’t the alarm bells ringing?

They say there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. However, if you live in South Africa, there is another certainty: Every year without exception, when the Department of Education releases the matric examination results, the pool of matriculants with decent marks in maths is always very small. This is even with upward adjustment to the marks and unfortunately, 2016 was no different.

Even with a pass mark of only 40% (and some subjects have a pass mark of only 30%), half of the matric candidates who wrote the subject in 2016, failed.

The situation is made even more dire when you consider the fact that less than 1% of learners who write matric, take maths as a subject. Placed in perspective, of the total pool of 828 020 learners who wrote matric in 2016, only 8 070 learners wrote maths. Expressed differently, the total pool of learners, who wrote matric, would fill the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) almost 10 times over. However, the total number of learners, who wrote maths would fill less than 10% of the stadium.

We have every reason to be alarmed. Some facts cannot be sugar coated. South Africa is not globally competitive. The country ranks 49th out of 140 countries surveyed in the 2015-2016 World Competitiveness Report. And yet every year, employers bemoan the shortage of accountants, engineers and IT skills in the country, to name a few.

Particularly interesting are the skills listed on South Africa’s 2014 skills visa list. In the category, Business, Economics and Management studies, several of the core skills required have a mathematical bias. This includes professions such as actuaries, risk assessors and auditors. The same is true for Information and Communications Technology and Business Process Outsourcing. Proficiency in maths is the bedrock for many of these skills areas.

And yet the business community has not come together to articulate how the shortage of matriculants with decent marks in maths poses a threat to business as a whole, both in terms of global competitiveness, and business sustainability.

Government, business and educators need to fix the teaching of maths in South Africa’s school system as a matter of urgency. There are a number of ways in which business could help.

They could show the way by volunteering staff who are proficient in maths to act as tutors for learners and teachers; sponsoring holiday camps for children who are struggling with maths; or funding programmes that bring the world’s best maths educators to South Africa.

South Africa cannot afford to delay. The economy desperately needs skills for which maths is a fundamental requirement. Without more matriculants taking and passing maths, the gap will only get wider.

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