South African students (called ‘learners’) enter formal education in the year they turn 6 at which stage they enter Grade R. This is followed by a further 9 years of compulsory formal education divided into three phases: Foundation Phase (Gr 1-3), Intermediate Phase (Gr 4-6) and Senior Phase (Gr 7-9). After Gr 9 learners can choose to complete the fourth and final phase of their basic education, the Further Education and Training Phase (Gr 10-12) at a high school or at a Further Education and Training (FET) college.

In South Africa, studying mathematics is compulsory until the end of the Senior Phase (i.e. Gr 9). Learners can then choose between Mathematics and Mathematical Literacy. Mathematics is required for entry into many university degrees but even so the majority of learners opt for Mathematical Literacy, often encouraged by their schools who want a good matric (Gr 12) pass rate as Mathematical literacy is generally seen as an easier option. The required time for mathematics is 180 hours per year of which 30 hours must be given to formal assessment.

The school year starts in January and in most schools has four terms. In the Senior and FET Phase, learners take examinations twice a year. Only the final school leaving examination is nationally set and marked but since 2010, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has introduced Annual National Assessments (ANAs) as a strategy to measure progress in learner achievement annually, in an attempt to move towards the 2014 target of ensuring that at least 60% of learners achieve acceptable levels in Literacy and Numeracy (DBE website). Although these tests are set on a national level, they are marked locally by each teacher and the marks then submitted to a central body. In 2010, only Gr 3 and 6 learners were assessed but by 2014 Gr 1-6 and Gr 9 learners were assessed and soon Grade 7 and 8 learners will also be assessed.

South Africa introduced a national curriculum in the years following the major political upheavals of 1994. The current National Curriculum Statement comprises three documents: The Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS); the National policy pertaining to the programme and promotion requirements of the National Curriculum Statement; and the National Protocol for Assessment. The CAPS document is much more frequently referred to by teachers than the other two, possibly because it specifies what needs to be taught each term in each grade for each subject. Teachers are also supplied with “pace setters” which specify which topics need to be taught on a week by week basis. It is normal in government schools for all lessons for all grades to be suspended during two examination periods in the year and many children are expected not to attend school unless they are taking an examination. There is often little or no feedback to learners on these examinations.

Two major challenges faced by South African teachers are large classes and the language of instruction. In terms of class size, it is common to find over 50 learners in one class, with one teacher, and in a space that is too small to allow teachers to move around the classroom.

In terms of the language of instruction, there are 11 South African languages and up to Grade 3 it is usual for all lessons to be in the home-language of the learners. From Grade 4, the language of instruction, also known as the language of learning and teaching (LOLT), is English or Afrikaans. In many rural schools it is often the case that nobody speaks English outside the school classroom. A concern raised by teachers with whom we have worked is that learners seem to understand the mathematics during the lesson but then then do badly in written tests. One possible reason for this is that teachers often interpret questions in class to learners using code switching because the learners struggle with the LOLT. This means that learners rarely have to read the question in the LOLT by themselves except in formal written tests.

For mathematics education in South Africa, however, possibly the greatest challenge is the teachers’ lack of subject knowledge in mathematics. For example, according to the 2005 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality report(SACMEQ) only 32% of Grade 6 maths teachers in South Africa had desirable subject knowledge. It seems that, possibly because of lack of subject knowldege, many teachers do not cover specific areas of the curriculum, which is seen as a major problem in the country.

Formative assessment in South Africa