September 5, 2022

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Incoming South African teachers score 54% on primary school maths tests: report

The inaugural 2030 Reading Panel report has found concerningly low levels of education at schools in South Africa.

The 2030 Reading Panel is a civil society initiative headed by former deputy president Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka which aims to ensure that by 2030 all children will read for meaning by age 10.

The panel is made up of 18 eminent South Africans and includes members from academia, NGOs, business and faith communities.

The main findings presented in the background report released on 1 February 2022 were:

  • South African 10-year-olds in 2021 know less than 9-year-olds before the pandemic: Due to rotational timetables and school closures in 2020 and 2021 children in South Africa have lost 1.3 years of learning. New assessments show that children in Grade 4 in 2021 knew less than children in Grade 3 in 2018.
  • Half of teachers (45%) will retire in the next 10 years:  This is ‘unprecedented’ and currently there is no plan to address this wave of retirements. The report showed that due to the ageing of public school teachers there is a bulge of teachers about to reach retirement age (60). It will require universities to increase teacher production from 26,000 in 2018 to 44,000 by 2025 to 50,000 by 2030.
  • Before the pandemic South Africa’s education system was improving slowly but steadily: The report showed that for children who were enrolled in Grade 1 from 1994 onwards, their reading and mathematics outcomes were consistently improving, although levels were still low.
  • On South Africa’s current trajectory it will take 80 years before all 10-year-olds can read for meaning: Although President Ramaphosa committed his administration to ensure that by 2030 all 10-year-olds will read for meaning, on current projections only 36% will be able to read for meaning by 2030 – currently only 22% of 10-year-olds can read for meaning in any language.
  • University B.Ed students scored 50% on primary school maths test: Assessments of primary school mathematics teachers showed that first-year B.Ed students across three universities scored 52% on a primary school maths test and final year B.Ed students scored 54%. The panel called for an audit of university programs training primary school teachers.
  • Current reading plans are ‘slogans’ because they lack funding: The report showed that most of the DBE’s current plans for reading were primarily slogans (“Read to Lead”, “Drop All and Read”, President’s Virtual Reading Circle) and there was currently ‘negligible’ budget allocated to reading.

The panel has subsequently called for ‘fundamental reforms’ to ensure that all children read for meaning by age 10 by 2030, and ensure education standards are improved across the country.

The four recommendations from the background report were:

  • Establishing a universal external Grade 2 assessment of reading.
  • Moving from slogans to budgets. It was estimated that government would need to spend R1.3 billion per year to provide high-quality reading materials and support to teachers.
  • Providing a standard minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation Phase classrooms (Grade R-3) as a matter of urgency.
  • A university audit of preservice teacher education programs.

Maths tests 

One of the key concerns flagged in the report is the extremely low levels of content knowledge, even for younger and newer teachers.

Although the focus of the panel is on reading, in South African primary schools teachers are required to be able to teach both languages and mathematics. In the Foundation Phase, it is the same teacher who teaches all subjects.

“The trends in mathematics are indicative of wider problems in terms of who is recruited into teaching – incoming B.Ed students have the lowest average entry requirements and matric points of all degrees – and what is accomplished during four years of full-time training,” the panel said.

“The latest research shows that these newly graduated teachers are performing incredibly weakly on tests their students should be able to master.”

Earlier research showed that in a nationally representative sample of teachers in 2007, 79% of Grade 6 mathematics teachers could not pass tests aimed at their Grade 6 students.

More recent research shows that this problem has not gone away since 2007, and if anything, more evidence has emerged pointing to serious inadequacies in teacher training at universities.

In 2018, a sample of 488 first-year B.Ed students and 282 final year B.Ed students was taken from three typical universities. The test was designed to assess primary school mathematics knowledge and included 43 questions drawn from the Grade 1-7 curriculum (i.e. only primary school mathematics content).

It found that most B.Ed students lacked a proper understanding of even primary school mathematics, and secondly, there was not much growth in mathematics knowledge over the four years of the B.Ed program.

“The need for reforming the teacher education system has been well known for a long time and little meaningful action has been taken to address the challenges to date.” With more teachers set to retire by 2030, this lack of reform is all the more urgent, the panel said.

“Without significant reforms to how teachers are trained, managed and supported, the incoming wave of new teachers will still not take us to the 2030 goal of ensuring that all children learn to read for meaning by age 10.”


Read: South Africa’s ‘real’ matric pass rate is far lower than government’s figures: DA

Incoming South African teachers score 54% on primary school maths tests: report