SOUTH AFRICA is many things, but it is not a nation of mathematicians. Notoriously poor when it comes to numeracy, this is a country where mathematics standards have always been low and are now continuing to slide. In December 2016, in fact, a new measure was passed in order to lower the pass rate for students of mathematics.
The fresh measure was a response to declining performance in mathematics amongst students, which was holding many back in other areas of their education. Pupils in grades 7, 8 and 9 will now be able to progress to the next grade even if they achieve less than the previously compulsory 40% in mathematics, as long as they achieve 40% or more in all other subjects. Students may now progress to the next year with as little as 20% in mathematics. Year 9 students who wish to pursue mathematics further will now need to attain just 30% in order to continue their mathematical studies.
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This poor performance in mathematics is thought by many to be partially to blame for the low level of financial literacy in South Africa. Recently rated at having the lowest level of financial literacy in a survey 30 other nations including Malaysia and Belarus, South Africa also performs very poorly in maths and science globally.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Hong Kong ranked as the study's most financially literate nation, while also appearing at the top of the list of high performers in science and maths. The same Global Competitiveness Report placed South Africa at the bottom of a survey of 140 countries' mathematics performance, including Mozambique and Malawi.
This under-performance in mathematics is a huge concern across many areas, from education and finance, to South Africa's position as a global nation on the world stage. Over the past 10 years, many initiatives have been launched to improve financial literacy in the country, from drives direct from the Treasury, to recent movements like Wonga.co.za's online Money Academy – there are now a great many organisations which are heavily invested in improving financial education in South Africa.
But perhaps the much-needed improvement in financial literacy needs to start in the classroom – with better mathematics education all round. The recent reduction in pass grades is one in a long line of indicators that numeracy in the country is in serious decline, with pupils increasingly struggling to calculate fractions, assess probability and grasp simple mathematic concepts.
READ: How to solve SA maths crisis? Not by failing pupils, says education expert
These declining levels of ability don't just impact mathematical ability, there are also strong links between good numeracy and better cognitive and critical thinking – the types of thought required to make informed decisions and undertake more complex thinking, impacting academic performance across the board.
When contemplating the types of understanding which underpin shrewd financial decisions, it's clear that poor mathematical education, combined with almost non-existent financial education (particularly in schools with a lower economic demographic), is a recipe for bad financial management. Little wonder then, that South Africa was rated as the country with the highest levels of consumer debt in 2015.
Do you think improving numeracy and mathematics in schools will help improve South Africa's overall financial literacy? How can improvements be made? Share your thoughts and opinions with us.
*Stephen G Davies MSc writes about world news, finance, technology, business and covers product reviews for global firms. Stephen has written for digital agencies, e-zines and maintains a passion for updating a number of his own blogs. Writer by day, reader by night, Stephen enjoys being aware of world events and affairs and is passionate about related topics.