[intro]According to President Zuma, 2017 will be the year for mathematics in schools, but dire performance continues and may even be affecting personal finances.[/intro]

In his February State of the Nation Address, President Zuma announced that, in honour of Oliver Tambo (who would have turned 100 this year), 2017 will be the year for mathematics and science in schools.

In the same speech, the President said he was proud South Africa was the most improved nation in mathematics education league tables in 2016, even though the country is the second worst in the world in the subject – and the worst in Africa.

The Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS) may have revealed that mathematics education is improving in South Africa, but this improvement is a drop in the ocean compared to what it will take to lift the country from the very bottom of the pack in mathematics.

Standards slipping

As recently as last December, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) announced that the mathematics pass mark for grades 7-9 would be dropped to 20%, if students performed acceptably in other subjects. This move was taken in order to ensure the many pupils who were being held back as a result of poor maths performance could proceed to the next level of their education, removing a bottleneck caused by widespread failure in mathematics. The move was strongly opposed by teachers, parents and educational experts.

Wider implications

It is not only those involved in education who are troubled by South Africa’s approach to mathematical education. From fears about South Africa’s ability to compete on a global platform in key sectors like technology, medicine and finance, to concerns about young South Africans’ ability to handle their own finances responsibly, the impact of poor maths education extends far beyond the school gates.

Financial issues

Financial education is already a major concern for many. In tandem with the TIMMS study, a recent OECD study of financial literacy around the world showed that South Africa performs very poorly when it comes to understanding investment rules and even performing basic financial calculations.

This poor level of financial literacy is extremely troubling for a nation which has already ranked as the world’s most personally indebted nation in the recent past. With very high levels of personal debt, and a very high number of “bad debts” (used to pay for unnecessary items such as holidays or gifts, or taken out without a realistic repayment plan), the nation’s poor financial knowledge and personal debt problem appear to go hand in hand.

This is also the opinion of the many disparate Government initiatives set up to help teach finance across the country, as well of academics at UCT’s Faculty of Commerce and businesses such as Wonga.co.za which have taken matters into their own hands by creating online resources for South African’s keen to learn more about finance.

Do you think poor mathematics education and poor financial literacy go hand in hand? What needs to change to help South Africans get better at personal finance? Have your say below.