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Is anyone listening?

Imagine a South Africa with a large pool of matriculants with good marks in Pure Maths and Science. Imagine if the necessary strategies and resources were in place to enable these candidates to achieve their full potential, South Africa would be able to address gaps in scarce and critical skills areas.

South Africa could catapult from its ranking of 47th out of 138 countries surveyed (Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017), to a ranking in the first or second quartile; it would also transition very rapidly from a stage 2 efficiency-driven economy, to stage 3, the elite group of innovation-driven economies. South Africa would join the ranks of countries such as Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore.

This is not a pipe dream – it only requires the necessary support measures to be put in place in schools.

If South Africa had a robust pipeline of matriculants with Pure Maths and Science it could produce physicists, mathematicians, statisticians, engineers, general medical practitioners, cardiologists, obstetricians and gynaecologists, accountants, Corporate Treasurers, and ICT practitioners. All these require skills currently on the critical skills list.

Mathematics and Science Education in South Africa are in a state of crisis. The World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2015, ranked South Africa 139 out of 143 countries on the overall quality of its education system. However, when measured against our international counterparts, our most proficient learners are on par with average performers in Singapore, Korea, Japan, Slovenia and the Russian Federation.

An assessment of the pool of 2015 matriculants sheds further light. Of the 33% of learners who wrote Mathematics, only half scored above the 30% which constitutes a pass – this means the pool of learners able to study in scarce and critical skills areas is exceedingly small. When this same pool of learners wrote the National Benchmark Tests (NBT), written by 80 000 university applicants in South Africa, 45% scored “basic” for Mathematics. These learners will face challenges and need extensive support.

The National Department of Education, provincial Departments of Education and individual schools have mountains of data, which if mined, could unlock patterns, associations, and trends.

Data analytics could detect unexpected correlations between variables such as an educator’s age, qualifications, years of teaching experience, teaching methodology, hours spent in and out of the classroom, results achieved teaching in the vernacular as opposed to English, the learner’s age, the learner’s reading age, the learner’s IQ, and learner’s marks in Maths, English and Science. The list goes on.

By identifying previously unknown factors which may impact on achievement, the authorities could implement smart measures to strengthen educator-capacity in Maths and Science, and by so doing, also improve learners’ performance in these subjects.

Such a process would identify “star schools”, “star educators” and “star learners” as well as those institutions and individuals with latent potential. The “star schools” and “star educators” should be incentivised to assist and empower learners and educators at other schools – this would benefit a very large pool of learners in the long-run.

Individuals, who are good at Maths and Science, should be nurtured and supported, by way of mentorship and extra tuition throughout the entire school, university or TVET college pipeline; this is the only way that South Africa will be able to build the scarce and critical skills that the economy requires. We should encourage exposure to ‘unusual’ careers such as animator, astronomer, forensic scientist, meteorologist, stock broker, car designer, to name but a few. This would spark some learners’ curiosity and encourage them to work even harder to master the relevant subjects.

There should be more places of interest for learners with an aptitude for Maths and Science. Subject specific holiday camps, Maths and science expos and competitions can go a long way to further nurturing interest in Maths and Science.

The Global Competitiveness Report does not mince words: “Higher education and training is crucial for economies that want to move up the value chain beyond simple production processes and products.”

Using data analytics to identify strengths, weakness and unknowns could revolutionise Maths and Science teaching in South Africa; it could also help move our economy up the value chain. The question is: “Is anyone listening?”

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