The golden pass: how a good maths open up the world

Marlene Mouton is the founder of CMATHS, an educational mathematics programme centred around fast-paced mental arithmetic. Parents have long understood the boost that good maths and sciences education can give their child in the working world. A high enough mark in both opens young people up to be able to study anything they want to at university.

As digital jobs become more common and the internet entwines itself into our lives, the importance of a strong technological background becomes even more pronounced. According to Professor Poobalan Pillay, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, those with maths skills are taking charge in unlikely arenas.

“Whether it be image processing, DVDs, GPRS, investments in stock markets, design of state-of-the-art aircraft, cancer research - all use mathematics,” says Dr Pillay. “More and more business houses are seeking mathematicians to help run their organisations.”

Even for children who don’t go on to study maths at university, there are many benefits that are not immediately obvious. The ability to recognise and construct patterns that mathematics is incredibly useful in most careers, particularly those in the arts like music and architecture.

Despite the well-documented importance of science and maths, South African learners continue to struggle with the subjects. In 2014, only 35.1% of matrics who wrote maths scored above 40%. The World Economic Forum recently ranked South Africa dead last in the quality of its maths and science education.

The Human Science Research Council has pointed out another worrying trend. In many of these global studies, top SA learners approach the average performance of countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. With the quality of SA maths education the way it is, even our best-performing youth find themselves at a real disadvantage in the global marketplace.

For many parents, these numbers should be a wake-up call. The maths and science crisis has the potential to affect every child in SA and severely limit their choices later in life. According to CMATHS head, Marlene Mouton, the problem will only get worse before it gets better.

“It’s a terrible cycle,” she says. “The worse our maths and science education gets, the less children will want to study it further. We will have fewer good teachers to educate the next generation.”

While there are government efforts in place to encourage learners to pursue maths and science at a tertiary level, these may already come too late in a child’s development to make a difference. Numerous research studies conducted over decades point to the importance of early childhood learning in future success.

Mouton points out that the period when a child first starts learning maths at school is key: “We see a dramatic drop in the understanding and enthusiasm for maths from the time children start school to around Grade 4. If your child is being taught by someone who has no love or understanding of the subject, they’re never going to develop the basic skills they need to do well later on.”

For the few children lucky enough to get qualified and passionate teachers, the future looks bright. For the rest, parents need to consider alternative methods to instil a love of maths in their children when they are still young. Mouton believes that programmes such as CMATHS, which emphasise fun, hands-on learning of foundational concepts, should be a consideration for concerned parents.

“It takes years to get good teachers in place. In the meantime, we need to make sure our kids don’t miss out on future opportunities because the Afrikaans teacher was the one who taught them maths in Grade 1. Our aim is to give children the knowledge they need so that they can eventually walk straight into any university course.”

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