Mathematics education in South Africa has received its fair share of attention in recent years. Although there are many articles about mainstream mathematics education, very little information is available on extra tuition in South Africa. Let’s take a look at tuition in some other countries and South Africa.

Extra mathematics tuition in other countries

The list of countries, where extra tuition is commonplace, or where it is growing significantly includes; Canada, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, Mauritius, Romania, Singapore, Turkey, United Kingdom and Hong Kong, to name a few [The Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring].

In some countries, such as Lithuania, Mauritius, Korea, the Ukraine and Hong Kong, teachers are restricted from providing extra tuition to their own learners. The lawmakers do this because some teachers do not teach the whole curriculum and then provide extra tuition for profit to fill the gaps [The Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring]. This is the reason why countries such as Mauritius have completely banned extra tuition in the past. It might explain why extra tuition enjoys a less than rosy reputation in some countries. However, these bans were ineffective because of the government’s inability to enforce them. A study done in 2004 indicated that 87% of grade 6 learners in Mauritius received extra tuition [How to Interpret the Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring].

A common perception is that counties experience high levels of tuition as a direct result of the education system failing. Although it might be a contributing factor [Extra Maths Tuition in South Africa], it certainly is not the only, or even the main reason. The table below [The Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring] describes the frequency of tuition in some of the best performing counties in terms of quality of education.

Country  Amount of extra tuition received  *TIMSS ranking  *PISA Score
 Mathematics  Science  Reading
 Rep. of Korea  On aggregate 73% of all school going learners.  1st  5th  7th  5th
 Singapore  49 % of primary and 30% of secondary school learners.  2nd  2nd  3rd  3rd
 Hong Kong  On aggregate 50.6 % of secondary school learners.  4th  3rd  2nd  2nd
Japan  64% of grade 8 learners receive mathematics tuition and 41% receive science tuition.  5th  7th  4th  4th
Taiwan  81 %  n/a  4th  13th 7th
United Kingdom  On aggregate 27%.  10th  26th  20th  23rd

*These are ways to compare mathematical and scientific performance of the learners in different countries. The first method is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS], which measures trends in mathematics in the 4th and 8th grade. The second method is by using the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], which tests mathematics, science and reading skills of 15 year olds.

As seen from the table above, in some countries with very high educational standards tuition is quite common. Education is an incredibly competitive area in Asia. It has been noted that in the Republic of Korea, parents spend more money on extra tuition than what the government spends on formal education [Supplementary Tuition in Mathematics]. The significant differences in performance in subjects like Mathematics and Physical Science, observed between Asian countries and the rest of the world, could be boosted by their extensive private tutoring sector [Supplementary Tuition in Mathematics].

Who attends extra tuition?

Statistics on the Asian countries indicate that their academically strong learners attend tuition, along with those learners who struggle with the subject. It is observed that learners from wealthier and higher educated households, are more likely to attend tutoring and are willing to spend more money on extra tuition [The Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring].

There is also the theory that the demand for private tutoring most likely comes from busy families that have two or more children. The reasoning is that because these parents are otherwise preoccupied, they have less time to monitor homework, and thus seek substitution in the form of enriched after-school care. However, a study conducted in Canada revealed that parents that opt for extra tuition are more intensely involved in their children’s schooling and report more time helping with homework and volunteering at their school [School Choice by Default?].

In Mauritius, it was found that Mathematics was the one subject that parents felt they could not assist their children with because they themselves were not comfortable with the subject. Tuition services give them the option to help their children achieve academically [Private Tutoring in Mathematics].

Tuition in South Africa

Unfortunately, very little reliable information is available about extra mathematics tuition in South Africa. One of the most useful studies is a master’s thesis done in 2008 about supplementary tuition in the Eastern Cape [Supplementary Tuition in Mathematics]. It also discussed mathematics as a subject from the learner and teacher’s perspective. Here are some of the key points from the mentioned thesis:

The schools:
10 schools in the East London school district were used. These schools were identified based on their performance. All these schools were high performing with an average mathematics class size of 27 (well below the national average) and they had a matric pass rate of close to 100%.

What the learners had to say:

  • Only 30% of learners were satisfied with their current Mathematics mark.
  • 90% of learners reported that they found Mathematics extremely important for their future.
  • 49% of Mathematics learners wanted more school time allocated to the subject.
  • Only 2% viewed supplementary tuition in a negative light.
  • Only 11% of learners said the subject was too difficult.
  • 47 % of mathematics learners had problems with previous years’ work.
  • Only 11% indicated that the teacher did not explain clearly in class.
  • Only 11% said that classes were too big.
  • 47% of learners indicated that the syllabus was too long.
  • 51% of learners acknowledge that they did not work hard enough at the subject.

The teachers:
Teachers who took part in the study were exceptionally well qualified compared to the national average. 91 % had taken mathematics at university level and the average age was 42.2 years of age (According to the TIMSS report, learners who are taught by teachers over the age of 40 achieve better results). The study highlighted some interesting facts:

  • 87 % of teachers experienced difficulties completing the Grade 10 and 11 syllabuses.
  • 43% felt compelled to rush work despite the fact that some learners could not keep up.
  • 91% of teachers gave extra help to learners after school hours.
  • 86% of teachers thought problems carried over from previous years contributed to poor performance in later years.

Teachers who are trying their best and even helping learners after school, cannot really be blamed for the bad marks if the odds are stacked against them. Does the problem not perhaps lie in the basic mechanics of modern schools, not just in South Africa, but in other countries too?

So why is extra mathematics tuition growing in South Africa?

As seen in Asian countries extra mathematics tuition is not necessarily growing because the education system is failing. Master Maths has been providing extra mathematics tuition since 1976. There is no doubt that all the negative media articles about our public education system has helped the growth of extra tuition, but it is not a direct cause and effect relationship. Some of our best performing Master Maths centres have more than 50% private school learners, and if media reports are to be believed, private school educational standards would have remained relatively stable in recent years (hence private school growth in recent years).

We have seen from studies that wealthier, higher educated parents and parents who are more involved with their children’s education will be more likely to send their children to receive extra tuition. The number of graduates in the South African labour force has more than doubled in the past 15 years [Graduate Unemployment in South Africa] and could explain some of the increases in learners attending tuition. We have also seen that pro-tuition parents realize that they are unable to help their children with the more difficult subjects such as mathematics and physical science.

In South Africa, and the rest of the world, children are experiencing increased competition. Only the highest achievers will get into the most sought after universities. Parents know this and want to provide their children with every possible opportunity to succeed academically.

Is there really still a choice?

A lack of time and an increase in competition is resulting in children experiencing ever increasing stress levels [South African Teens]. Can they really afford the extra stress of falling behind with their mathematics and not to be confident about their future? If learners start to show difficulties in mathematics, parents have no choice but to seek help earlier rather than later.

There might be a multitude of reasons why extra tuition is on the rise. But even if we resolve the problems in our public education system one thing is for sure: extra mathematics tuition is here to stay, and it will continue to become more important and prominent in years to come.