Research by Trialogue indicates that half of corporate social investment (CSI) is spent on education. But where should it be targeted for maximum return on investment? Maths and science is often backed at further education training (FET) level with mixed results.

The statement: Maths and science interventions at FET level work, was debated at the 8th annual Trialogue CSI conference held in Johannesburg on 5 and 6 May 2015. Nic Spaull, a postdoctoral fellow in the Economics Department of Stellenbosch University says interventions need to be a lot earlier. His research focuses on the quality of education in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa with special emphasis on education policy and primary schooling.

“Learners are operating at grade 5 level in high school and getting them up to speed on a massive scale is difficult,” says Spaull referring to the majority of South African children who find themselves in the poorest 80% of schools. He also made the point that every rand spent on FET intervention is taken from lower education initiatives where more ‘bang for your buck’ is likely.

But by far Spaull’s biggest bugbear is the lack of maths and science being applied to maths and science. In other words, true evaluation of education interventions and initiatives is lacking at all levels. “There are many competing claims by children, teachers and policymakers about what works. We need objective, factual evidence on where to invest,” says Spaull who wants to see an education investment equation calculating that as a direct result of X, we achieved Y. His desire is for corporates to fund randomised, controlled trials in the same manner as pharmaceutical companies in partnership with the Department of Education (DOE).

Spaull also quoted research by Professor James Heckman that shows early childhood education is an efficient and effective investment for economic and workforce development – the earlier the investment, the greater the return on investment (see for more).

“Children need to understand the four mathematical operations, they need to be able to solve problems and to be doing well on CAPS [National Curriculum and Assessment Policy] before they reach high school,” says Spaull who quotes
600 000 children as having a four or five grade backlog by grade 9. He believes South Africa is facing a maths crisis.

Sharanjeet Shan, national executive director of the Maths Centre – a non-profit that strives to improve maths, science and technology in South Africa, substantiated her opposing view in favour of investing at FET level with graphs indicating that the Maths Centre’s cohort Grade 12 learners from the class of 2014 attained results of 14.4% and 14.5% higher than national levels in maths and physical science respectively, with a pass rate of 81.3% in mathematics and 85.5% in science. But are interventions tackling the right issues?

Shan was educated under a tree in India. At age 15 she started studying medicine and at 19 she had completed her studies. “Teaching under a tree is not the issue,” says Shan. She feels investment should be centred on teacher training first, and parent support second. The Maths Centre worked with 1 024 matric maths and physical science teachers influencing 5 598 grade 12 learners directly and
68 198 indirectly. “Teachers must be in love with their subject, and parents matter too. Mathematical language needs to be understood no matter your age because learning belongs to the learner,” says Shan.

Stating that the debate statement was flawed, Shan stressed that corporates can invest in education at any level, but she is particularly concerned about the 5 million young South Africans (between the ages of 18 and 35) that are unemployed. “We can’t just dump our youth in favour of earlier education interventions. There are grade 10s sitting in maths and science classes that can’t read with meaning,” says Shan, emphasising that heavy investment in early education initiatives will only reap rewards nine years from now.

On Spaull’s points around evaluation, Shan acknowledges it has merit and says that the Western Cape education department puts aside 10% of budget to assess the work done with the Maths Centre. She cautions, however, that evaluation is not a panacea, “We’re a nation obsessed with evaluation and much of what I’ve seen in South Africa isn’t usable or understandable.”

So should corporates take a short- or long-term view when investing in education initiatives? Madhav Chavan, a member of the floor during the debate and CEO of Pratham – an education organisation that reaches millions of children and young adults in India each year says, “You can and should start investing early, but don’t let go of the needs of your older learners.” Certainly, we can build a life raft to rescue learners from the sinking maths and science ship, but ultimately it will take broad-scale, systemic change to stop the ship from sinking.

Written by Rose Cohen.