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Bottom of the table in maths and science, but there is hope for South Africa’s Born-Free generation

When Soweto students took to the streets in 1976, they were motivated by the gross injustices meted out to them every day in the classroom. They had nothing to lose by leaving their classrooms because they recognised how limited their opportunities were. Twenty years on from South Africa’s first democratic elections, access to education has improved dramatically but the quality of this education, coupled with a slowing economy, means that many of today’s young people face a similarly bleak future.

“Despite the focus on better access to education since 1994, very little has improved in terms of the quality of education for disadvantaged young people. Although more and more children are going to school, the qualifications they come out with mean less and less. This is particularly true for maths and science,” says educator and Director of LEAP Science and Maths Schools, John Gilmour in response to a report from the World Economic Forum which ranks South Africa last out of 148 countries for the quality of its maths and science education.[1]

In 2013, South Africa celebrated the highest pass rate (78.2%) in the post-1994 education period but just 33% of students wrote physical science and 43% wrote mathematics. Only 59% passed maths, a subject with a pass mark of 30%. In disadvantaged communities like the ones LEAP serves, the picture is even worse: the matric pass rate in Langa in the Western Cape, for example, was 57% with only 32% passing mathematics.

In the context of slowing economic growth and a youth unemployment rate of 50%[2], opportunities for young people from disadvantaged communities are still severely limited. “The pathway for young people into tertiary education is challenging,” says Gilmour. “It is estimated that just one in 100 South African children who enter the education system in Grade 1 will make it through university.”

The LEAP schools’ focus on maths and science (100% of LEAP matrics sit physical science and maths each year), extended school day, Saturday classes, formal holiday programmes and community engagement has been successful in addressing this challenge: 72% of LEAP matriculants pursuing tertiary studies. For individuals like Qondisa Ngxanga from Langa, who recently became the first LEAP graduate to achieve a Master’s degree, the journey has been remarkable:  “I never expected that I would one day be this educated. When I look at where I come from, it is unbelievable because I am the first person in my family to have obtained a matric certificate.”

But LEAP can only reach a small number of South Africa’s youth through its six schools in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Ga-Rankuwa and Limpopo. “We need systemic and structural change,” continues Gilmour, “to be able to provide all young people like Qondisa with the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”

In 2013, LEAP participated in research for a Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) report which looked at the contract schools model of public schooling for South Africa. This is where there is an agreement between the government (which funds the school) and a private provider (which manages it). The report concludes that South Africa would benefit from initiating a contract schools system to complement public schools because “the areas in which these schools have had the greatest impact internationally — economically deprived areas with underperforming schools — is exactly where South Africa faces its greatest educational challenges.”[3]

“Township communities are places where the consequences of apartheid are played out daily. Crime, violence, corruption, gangsterism, drug and alcohol abuse – all are somehow normalised in our society with devastating consequences for the growth and development of children,” concludes Gilmour. “LEAP’s response to this has been to recognise that social transformation starts with personal transformation: one person at a time, one room at a time, one school at a time and one community at a time.”

…/ends

Notes to editors:

  • LEAP Science & Maths Schools is a leading education organisation which aims to give young South Africans the academic and life skills they need to become future leaders. Six schools provide free education to students from high-need communities and have mathematics, physical science and English as mandatory subjects. With an extended school day, Saturday classes and formal holiday programmes, LEAP students consistently outperform national and provincial averages as well as cohorts from their home communities.  Leapschool.org.za
  • Qondisa Ngxanga is the first LEAP graduate to get a Master’s degree. In 2013, she completed a Master’s in Financial Mathematics at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), after doing a BSc Honours in Computational Finance at the University of the Western Cape. Read Qondisa’s story.
  • For more information, interviews and photographs, contact Sabrina Lee on 021 531 9715 or sabrina@leapschool.org.za


[1] World Economic Forum Global Information Technology Report 2014

[2] World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risk 2014 report

[3] CDE (2013), THE MISSING SECTOR Contract Schools: International experience and South African prospects

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