Original Research

The dream of Sisyphus: Mathematics education in South Africa

Nick Taylor
South African Journal of Childhood Education | Vol 11, No 1 | a911 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v11i1.911 | © 2021 Nick Taylor | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 13 July 2020 | Published: 23 February 2021

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Nick Taylor, Research Division, Jet Education Services, Johannesburg, South Africa

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Background: South African schooling is caught in a vicious cycle, characterised by weak initial teacher education (ITE) and weaker-than-average learning outcomes, resulting in low teacher status and attempts to reform schooling by means of continuous professional development (CPD).

Aim: The paper attempts to understand the reasons for poor performance in mathematics and to explore avenues for improvement.

Setting: Teaching in South African schools.

Method: Three mechanisms for improving teaching and learning are identified: ITE, CPD and the management of and support to teachers. Drawing on the research literature, the paper examines the potential of each for reforming the system.

Results: Tests based on the school curriculum indicate that final-year BEd students are quite unprepared to teach mathematics in primary schools, revealing very significant shortcomings in ITE curricula. CPD, where it is well designed and rigorously evaluated, has been shown to have small effects on both teacher knowledge and learner performance. However, unless ITE is reformed at the same time, CPD becomes a never ending task of making marginal differences to the shortcomings of each successive cohort of qualified but incompetent teachers emerging from the universities.

Conclusion: While the weak state of governance in the civil service remains a major obstacle to improved schooling, and while every effort must be made to raise the capacity of inservice teachers, maximal leverage in boosting teacher capacity sits firmly with the universities. While CPD has, at most a few hours a month to bridge huge gaps in teacher knowledge, ITE has at its disposal four years of full-time study with young, plastic minds.


mathematics education; high performing school systems; initial teacher education; continuous professional development


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