How to fix science and maths education

By Prof Loyiso Jita

Creative partnerships between universities and state-owned companies may hold the key to improved
outcomes in maths, science and technology subjects and open more career opportunities for

One such programme is already in place – and achieving results – at the University of the Free State
through an endowment from SANRAL to sponsor a Chair in Mathematics, Natural Sciences and
Technology Education.

The need to train more high school learners in these gateway subjects is well-documented and often
raised by educators, academics and leaders in government, business and civil society. The National
Development Plan has elevated it to a priority. However, the most recent White Paper on post-school
education and training concludes that the country “is still not producing enough science, engineering
and technology graduates to meet its economic development objectives.

The Academy of Science in South Africa – ASSAf – a statutory body established by its first patron,
former President Nelson Mandela, has brought together some of the leading thinkers in this field and
supported research studies and publications that looked at best global practices and innovations that
can be adapted and introduced within the local context.

The good news can be found in the growing number of private and public-sector initiatives that are
reaching school children from early ages – especially in rural and underprivileged communities – with
enrichment programmes and extra classes over holidays and weekends to augment the regular
classroom experience.

Again, SANRAL and the University of the Free State is at the leading edge of such initiatives through
its Family Math and Family Science Programme which reaches deep into rural communities in four
provinces and provides support to both learners, teachers and parents. We produce learning material
and teaching aids to make maths and natural sciences fun and we mobilise parents to encourage
their children to continue with subjects that are often wrongly labelled as “difficult” and “inaccessible.”

The steady improvement in matric pass rates over the past three years – including in the Free State,
which is the best performing province – hopefully indicates that we have turned a corner, but it also
encourages those of us involved in the education sector to redouble our efforts to maintain this

Through the SANRAL Chair in Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Technology Education we take a
few steps further to ensure we make a deep and lasting contribution towards solutions for this national

There is broad agreement that the challenge to improve the quality of teaching and learning in
science and mathematics require more than just a one-dimensional intervention. The issue that often
eludes us is how to find creative ways to do it.

We follow a multi-pronged approach that combines cutting-edge research in science and maths
education with the training of educators and the recruiting of talented high school students into the
teaching profession.
This dual focus on both research and practice makes the SANRAL chair initiative a truly multi-
dimensional and unique intervention in science and mathematics education.

On the one level we reach into communities by working with provincial and district education
authorities, and providing teachers with support material based on the most recent trends in research
and publications.

Through the programme we help to train teachers, support student-teacher interns and incentivise
education results so that participating schools become centres of excellence on their own – and
talented learners no longer have to migrate to better-resourced schools to access quality education.
In addition, our objective is that the learners who benefit from this initiative will become part of a talent
pool from which the next generation of engineers, teachers, artisans and technicians will be drawn.

At the other end of the curve we have already supported and produced 15 doctoral and six Master’s
graduates in the four years since the Chair was established in 2014. A further 43 post-graduate
students are currently in the pipeline. Many of our graduates and current students occupy key
decision-making positions at universities and education departments within the Southern African
For example, the education director of the Fezile Dabi district, the best performer in the country for
two years in a row, is a final year doctoral candidate in the SANRAL Chair. Our first female doctoral
candidate in mathematics education, Dr Mamiki Maboya, currently serves as the Deputy Director
General of Basic Education.

I have no doubt that through this programme we are influencing the way in which science and maths
teaching taking place throughout the region and that our impact will become increasingly visible in the
years to come.

It is no exaggeration to claim that the SANRAL chair is making a valuable contribution to change the
landscape of science, mathematics and technology education in Southern Africa. The logical next
step might be to establish a regional centre of excellence to service the entire SADC-pool of

The partnership between SANRAL as a state-owned entity and the University of the Free State has
already produced copious benefits and can serve as a proven and successful model that can be
studied and replicated elsewhere in our region.

Through this initiative we as public-sector entities are making tangible contributions to society and
providing solutions to one of the most pressing needs in the education system.

Prof Jita is the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of the Free State.