Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: GCIS
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: GCIS

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Tuesday put a determinedly upbeat spin on an international study that placed South Africa right at the bottom for science and second last for maths, saying she was pleased with the results because South Africa had improved more than any other country.

The Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) is published by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and is the world’s longest-running assessment of maths and science education. It is carried out every four years and the results of its 2015 study, which included 59 countries, were released on Tuesday. The tests are administered to grade 4 and grade 8 pupils in most countries, but in South Africa they are done by pupils in grades 9 and 5 instead.

Grade 9 and grade 5 pupils came second last in maths, while grade 9s were at the bottom of the pile in science, trailing other African countries such as Botswana and Morocco. Grade 5s did not participate in the science tests.

Grade 9 science pupils scored 358, compared to 332 in 2011, while maths pupils scored 372 compared to 352 in 2011.

These scores are below the TIMSS "low" benchmark score of 400. This means pupils’ grasp of even simple concepts such as graphs and whole numbers is weak and they struggle to apply their knowledge.

"This independent study gives an encouraging account of how we measure up," said the education Minister. "TIMSS performance from 2003 to 2015 shows that there was a significant improvement of 87 points for mathematics and 90 points for science, more than for any other country with comparable data... [And] we are seeing the gap between the lower performing schools and higher performing schools getting smaller," she said.

The basic education department’s director for research, monitoring and evaluation Stephen Taylor said pupils had made as much improvement as could realistically be expected. "Educational change doesn’t happen overnight. Outcomes are a function of many things, including home life," he said.

They show that there is a vast gulf between our learners and learners in other countries. They also show a huge gap in our own education system with learners at no-fee schools performing particularly badly
Gavin Davis
DA’s shadow education minister 

The DA’s shadow education minister Gavin Davis said South Africa’s results were very disappointing.

"They show that there is a vast gulf between our learners and learners in other countries. They also show a huge gap in our own education system with learners at no-fee schools performing particularly badly.

"It is no coincidence that the three lowest performing provinces — North West, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape — are three of the provinces found by the ministerial ‘jobs for cash’ report to have been captured by the South African Democratic Teachers Union. In these provinces ... teachers who are late for school or absent are not held to account, efforts to implement competency tests are blocked and union meetings are arranged during school hours.

"Taking our education system back from SADTU is the first step towards changing things for the better for local school students," he said.

"In the longer term, we need to fix our system of teacher training. Every study shows that the quality of our teaching is just not good enough in our poorly performing schools. Too many teachers are emerging from our universities without the necessary practical skills to deliver the curriculum effectively," Davis added.

The TIMSS league table was led by Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan.

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