Fourth Industrial Revolution seems far away for schools where no matrics write maths and science

Hoërskool Calitzdorp, a high school with about 650 pupils in a rural Western Cape town of the same name, is one of 392 public schools where no Grade 12s wrote the National Senior Certificate (NSC) maths exams in 2021.

The school hasn’t had a pupil writing maths since 2018, when three wrote the final exams, and no-one has written the physics exams since at least 2013, which is as far back as our data goes. 

Andrew Davids, who has been the school’s principal since 2019, said that it has been a struggle to find qualified maths teachers that are willing to work in small towns. 

Calitzdorp is a small town of about 4,000 people in the Klein Karoo, about 50km from Oudtshoorn. It’s known for its wine farms.

“People don’t want to come to the rural areas and teach the subjects. That’s one of the difficult things, to get people who are qualified in those specific subjects. That’s actually one of the main reasons [why we didn’t have pupils doing mathematics in matric],” Davids said.

Between 2015 and 2016, the school became a no-fee school and parents were no longer required to pay school fees. When this change was made, Davids said, “the perception of the kids and the attitude towards it [maths and science] changed.” 

Debbie Calitz, the school’s vice-principal who is a maths and science teacher, said that over the years the maths and science subjects were “dormant” because learners were not choosing the subjects. 

But this year, the school does have some Grade 12 pupils doing maths. 

Hoërskool Calitzdorp is not the only school that didn’t have Grade 12 pupils writing the NSC maths exams in 2021. The Outlier looked at the NSC exam results reports since 2013 and found that the number of public high schools with no matric maths pupils had almost doubled – there were 201 high schools with no Grade 12 maths learners registered for the final exams in 2013 and 392 schools in 2021. 

What about the fourth industrial revolution?

This flies in the face of the government’s strategy to harness the fourth industrial revolution by 2030

According to President Cyril Ramaphosa,  the government’s aim is to “shield citizens from any adverse consequences of technological change” by “investing heavily in curriculum innovation to prepare people for the jobs of the future”. 

This translates to introducing coding and robotics as subjects for primary school children in Grades 4 to 6 and high school pupils in Grades 8 and Grade 9 by 2025, according to the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE’s) Annual Performance Plan 2022/2023

But an understanding of maths and science is pivotal for coding and robotics and other technologies that drive this revolution. 

In May, in a presentation to the Parliamentary Committee on Basic Education, the DBE said it aims to have 450,000 students eligible to study maths and science at university by 2030. 

A lot has to be done to meet that target.

The same presentation noted that in 2021, only 34,451 (13%) pupils passed maths and 30,398 (15%) passed physical science with 60% or more – the marks required for a maths or science degree.

The class of 2021: only a third wrote maths

Ironically, with 704,021 learners, the class of 2021 was one of the biggest Grade 12 cohorts South Africa had seen. Of this group, 259,143  wrote the final maths exams, the third-largest group over the past nine years and 196,968 wrote science, the largest group since 2013. 

One reason for the bigger-than-usual group of Grade 12s is that when they were in Grade 11, because of Covid-related lockdowns, instead of exams accounting for 75% of the year mark and school-based assessments for 25%, exams were worth 40% of the marks and school-based assessments made up the remaining 60%. 

For more on that read Matrics in 2021 buck school drop-out trends

Although the number of Grade 12s who wrote the maths and science papers seems good at first glance, as a percentage of the whole grade, the proportion who wrote maths dropped from 43% in 2013 to 37% in 2021. 

There has been a similar drop in the proportion of learners writing physics. In 2013, a third (33%) of the matrics wrote and in 2021, 28% wrote. 

The percentage of pupils writing maths and science has been steadily decreasing since 2017.

The number of schools with no maths and science learners is increasing

There were roughly 300 more high schools listed in the NSC examination report in 2021 than there were in 2013, and one would expect that schools would be encouraged to get matrics to write maths and science. Yet the number of schools with no matrics doing maths has risen and the same applies to physical science. 

In 2013 there were 512 schools with no science candidates and in 2021 there were 781, that’s an increase of 269 schools where no matrics wrote physical science.

Six provinces saw an increase in the number of schools with no Grade 12s writing the maths exams, either because learners did not take the subject or because the school did not offer the subject. In only three provinces, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape, did the numbers remain steady.

A similar pattern applies to schools that had no candidates for the physical science exams.

Also troubling is the pass rate: although 56% of the Grade 12s who wrote the final maths exams in 2021 and 69% of those who wrote the final physical science exams passed with over 30% passed, only 23% scored above 50% for maths and 27% got 50% or more for science.

Grade 12s who wrote the NSC exams in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal or Mpumalanga, were less likely to achieve a university pass than those in Gauteng and the Western Cape (see table below).

Dr Anthea Cereseto, CEO of the Governing Body Foundation said some schools might be encouraging students not to take traditionally difficult subjects like maths and science.


“The pressure is on schools to get higher pass rates rather than quality subject passes.  In any case, a bad maths and science mark is not going to get you into a career requiring these subjects. Neither are most other subjects much use.”

No-fee versus fee-paying schools

Schools are categorised into quintiles. The quintiles correspond to the socioeconomic status of the area in which a school is located and fee-paying schools, which are in quintiles 4 and 5,  are generally those in the wealthier suburbs. Most times quintiles one to three are labelled as “no-fee” public schools. 

But there are exceptions, for example, Hoërskool Calitzdorp is a no-fee-paying school even though it is classified as a quintile 4 school.

Gladys Modise, of the DBE, explains that “a province can declare schools in quintiles four and five as no-fee because some fee-paying schools in quintiles four and five experience a level of funding that is below the no-fee threshold. The School Governing Body can make the application to the Head of Department for consideration.”

In 2021, 4,913 (79%) of the 6,194 public schools in the country were categorised as quintile one, two or three schools – or no-fee schools. The exceptions like Hoërskool Calitzdorp are very difficult to identify. 

No fees and no maths

Of the 392 schools that did not have any matrics registered to write the maths exams in 2021, 340 (87%) were no-fee schools.

The interactive map below shows the locations of the 340 schools in quintiles one, two and three (which we assume are all no-fee schools) where no maths students were listed for 2021 in the examination report. The majority of these schools are in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, with only a few others scattered around the rest of the provinces. 

The DBE’s School Masterlist often classifies schools as urban or rural. We looked at the 2021 masterlist to find out if the schools on the map are classified as rural or urban. 

Two-thirds (69%) of the schools,  234 schools, are in rural areas, 67 (20%) are in urban areas and 39 schools did not have any data on their urban or rural status.

In order to encourage students to take maths up to matric, Cereseto said that teaching needs to be improved at a primary school level. 

“Maths needs to be taught better in the early grades of school. Learners need to get 100% in grades one, two, three, four and five… Deep understanding of how numbers work is needed, not learning maths recipes and drilling routine operations,” said Cereseto.

Note: This article looked specifically at public schools in South Africa from 2013 to 2021.

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