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Science Education


Is Science Education in a crisis? Some of the problems in South Africa

Johnnie W. F. Muwanga-Zake 
Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education (CASME),Rhodes University - East London Campus Fax: 043-7047112, 

A survey carried out during 1998 in rural Grade 7 - 12 schools in the Eastern Cape revealed that teachers did not seem to know their problems in teaching science. For example, teachers claim that they do not teach science practically because they do not have apparatus. The survey results suggested that the teachers' problems, such as the inability to teach practically were underpinned by the teacher's lack of understanding of science concepts and processes. The teachers continue to demand science equipment even though there is evidence of unused equipment. Practical approaches were also apparently undermined by the foreignness of apparatus and irrelevance of curricula in rural settings. The crisis is further exacerbated by an indication that tertiary institutions produce few science teachers, and that the number of enrolments for Science Education in institutions seems to be dropping. Non Government Organisations (NGOs) are experiencing difficulty in obtaining funding for outreach projects that could have improved science education. There is an urgent need for a national strategy to increase the number of qualified science teachers and to upgrade the conceptualisation of science particularly in rural disadvantaged communities.


Why is there a need to improve and encourage science in South Africa? A greater number of science graduates results in a more skilled and therefore a more productive work force, which in turn contributes to an internationally more competitive nation and to redressing the balance of trade problems (Robottom & Hart (1993: 591). This belief is reiterated frequently, for example in the South African White Paper on science and technology (1996: 10), which states that science is considered to be among the requirements for creating wealth, and improving the quality of life. 

Realising the importance of science to development, Africa has, according to Ogunniyi (1996: 268), been eager to develop its scientific human power to attain a measure of self-reliance in the production of goods and services, by expanding its educational facilities, and setting up curriculum development and research centres, as well as developing policies on science education. In SA similar developments in science and science education are exemplified by, for example: 
The creation of a Ministry of Science, Technology and Culture, which declared 1998 and 2000 Years of Science and Technology;
Prioritising research in science, for example by the National Research Foundation (NRF); 
Increasing the focus towards science by universities of Venda, the North, of Cape Town, and of Fort Hare; 
Further Diploma in Education in science education (FDE), now the Advanced Certificate of Education (ACE), for retraining science teachers; 
The Department of Education (DoE) commissions to improve science education;
Scholarships for science teachers from for example ESKOM;
Manufacturing of science teaching equipment by, for example, the Somerset Educational; 
Media interventions such as the SABC Education and Liberty Life programmes on science
Creation of NGOs such as CASME and All Saints specifically for science education, and an increase in the awareness of traditional science; 
Outreach programmes such as by ZENNEX and ABSA, equipping schools with Somerset Micro science kits;
Science Centres, such as the Interactive Science Centre at Cape Town;
Research conferences on science education such as the South African Association for Research in Science and Mathematics Education (SAARMSE);
Programmes for upgrading science educators such as that by the North West DoE (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 25) and;
The SYSTEM initiative by the DoE aimed at increasing scientists.
Such efforts have provided SA with World-class scientists and contributed towards science education. 

However, beyond the passionate rhetoric and such interesting interventions, science education appears to be experiencing problems that could lead to a crisis. In Africa, the Dakar Declaration indicates large socio-economical obstacles against efforts towards human power development in the field of science and a poor state of science education (Ogunniyi, 1996). In SA these obstacles are widely articulated for example by MacDonald & Rogan (1988: 234), who found in the Eastern Cape Province impoverished communities that could not contribute towards curriculum development, poor school resources and inadequate teacher training. The low pass rates in science at Matric level (South African Broadcasting Corporation, PM Live program, 10th January 2000) and occasional reports on the low international ranking of science education are believed to be among the indicators of problems in science education in SA. The author has experienced or found similar problems in the Eastern Cape. 

This paper is a narrative based upon the author's experiences and research between 1983 and 2000 in the Eastern Cape Province. It should be noted that in 1998, the Eastern Cape school population constituted 22% learners, 20% schools, and 19% educators of those in SA (DoE, Annual Report 1998). Therefore, problems in the Eastern Cape Province, if not solved, can lead to a crisis in science education in SA, which will negate development efforts The crisis is particularly worrying against the belief that science knowledge is important for development.

The problems in science education are numerous. Only a few are briefly highlighted under the following headings, all of which require further research: Teacher's misconception of their problems; Problems in the science classrooms; Language and cultural barriers; a drop in science education students and; Inadequate finance to NGOs dealing with science education.

The paper aims at raising the awareness about problems and a looming crisis facing science education with the hope that an attempt will be made to research and to solve these problems in SA. 


The author's science teaching experience of 12 years at Butterworth and of 2 years in a Department of Education & Training (DET) school at Duncan Village (East London) (1983-1997).
Research in East London and Butterworth districts: This involved workshops, school visits, questionnaires and interviews, done during 1998 on 12 teachers in 10 schools in the Kentane area of Butterworth District (Muwanga-Zake, 1998).
Questionnaires and interviews to FDE science teachers of 1998and discussions with the FDE science education teachers of 2000 at Rhodes University,
Visits to 11 schools, involving 21 teachers, in the King Williams Town and Zwelitsha districts that participate in the ZENNEX project,
Workshops throughout the Eastern Cape and 18 teachers in the Free State as a manager of CASME in the Eastern Cape Province,
Communication with the DoE.
Telephone conversations with tertiary institutions
Note: Grade 8 to 12 teachers were involved.


Teachers often claim that lack of science equipment and laboratories prevent them from teaching science practically. However, there is evidence that teachers who have equipment do not use it. It appears therefore that, apart from work overloads, the main reason why teachers do not use practical approaches is that they are deficient in practical skills and do not understand the science concepts they are supposed to teach. This claim is well demonstrated in schools that have science equipment.

For example, schools that participate in the ZENNEX project have Somerset Micro Science kits, and all of the high schools sampled in Butterworth had some science teaching equipment. In the 21 schools visited, only five seemed to have attempted to use the science teaching equipment. The equipment was found to be gathering dust or neatly stored in boxes that had never been opened in 16 of those schools. Similarly, visits to three Masifunde Project schools in the Free State Province during 2000, and at a school where the author taught, revealed an assortment of unused science teaching equipment. All schools had some expired chemicals and broken or poorly maintained physics equipment some of which teachers could not identify. 

The teachers' lack of knowledge of chemicals in their schools was demonstrated at a Kentane school where a teacher requested the author for some of the chemicals used in a demonstration. The chemicals used in fact obtained from that school. The problem here was that the teacher was unable to identify those chemicals. Another teacher had kept a beam balance for over a year not knowing how to assemble it. Teachers occasionally reported and showed reservations of touching equipment lest these were damaged, whilst others expressed fears of attempting experiments that might not work in front of learners (Muwanga-Zake, 1998). Some teachers in ZENNEX project schools complained about principals who kept equipment in their offices for inspectors to see. Thus, science equipment was not being used as it should in those schools. Under-utilisation of science equipment seemed to be caused by deficiencies in practical skills and conceptual understanding of science.

The teachers who enrolled for the FDE in 1998, as well as 'qualified' teachers who were interviewed, claimed that they were never taught much of the prescribed science practicals when they were learners at school or as teacher trainees at colleges of education or at university. One reason contributing to this claim could be that practicals do not contribute directly towards passing examinations (like in the case of Ordinary Level Cambridge Certificate). If practicals are believed to enhance understanding of science concepts, then the teachers' deficiency in conceptual understanding can be explained by their claim of having been taught without science practicals. A crisis is eminent due to teachers that do not have a reasonable grasp of science concepts they are supposed to teach. For example, during a workshop at Kentane, teachers could not give acceptable definitions for the concept 'potential difference' and only a few could attempt to connect a voltmeter correctly across a resistor. Two of the eleven FDE teachers in 1998 could not identify a voltmeter and all of them were not sure of the appearance of some of the school chemicals. Similar shortcomings were realised among the 18 teachers in the Free State. Smit (1993: 222) made similar observations that prospective physical science teachers in their final year at university, and practising physical science teachers had misconceptions about models in physics. These claims imply that some teachers and lecturers do not use practicals in their science classrooms. 

It was then surprising that most of the teachers in Kentane ranked science equipment and in some instances laboratories as key problems which prevented them from teaching science practically (Muwanga-Zake, 1998: 36). CASME (1992: 35) found a similar ranking from a survey, which showed that teachers in SA agreed that practical approaches were basic requirements towards understanding science. The ranking contradicts the finding that teachers had rarely, if at all, experienced science practicals, and seemed not to know what is done with the equipment and/or in a laboratory. Apparently, teachers were theoretically taught about the importance of practicals, science equipment, and a laboratory. Thus the teachers' call for science equipment and laboratories appears to be without experience, but rather a belief that there is no science without science equipment or laboratories. All of these problems appear to originate from the teacher's past education. One of the indicators of these problems is the declining percentage of passes in science at Matric, (Table1). What are these problems?


Table 1 is a manifestation of problems at schools and in classrooms. Managerial problems such as late coming, schools opening late in the year, and starting end-of-year examination by the middle of October reduce tuition time which for science might lead to ignoring practical exercises as teachers rush to complete the syllabus. Other problems relate with the quality of teachers. 

Enrolment for Biology is dropping!
It is worth noting in Table 1 below that fewer learners are opting for Biology (wrongly excluded from 'science'), which is such an important subject towards understanding environmental and conservation issues, as well as health, especially in this era of AIDS, genetic engineering and environmental degradation.

Table 1. Enrolment and % pass for Physical Science (P.Sc.) and Biology (Bio) at Matric in the Eastern Cape Province. (Full-time students only)

SG = Standard Grade;    HG = Higher Grade


P. Sc. HG

P. Sc. SG


Bio. HG

Bio. SG

























































Source: DoE Eastern Cape Province. It is regrettable that the DoE does not provide the extent to which results are moderated.

A poor quality of teachers
Ogunniyi (1996: 278) notes that no education system is higher than the level of the teacher. Thus, standards in science classrooms may fall because of the shortage of properly trained science teachers. Deficiencies in practical skills and conceptual understanding are passed on from teacher to learner who then becomes a teacher - from one generation to the next. This cycle perpetuates incompetence and can lead to a deterioration of standards over time, similar to what Table 1 shows. 

Poor teacher education could account for the teachers' verbatim reliance upon textbook notes and practical instructions (Muwanga-Zake, 1998), the practice of chalkboard teaching observed by Jennings & Everett (1996), and the teachers' inability to use equipment that is not familiar (e.g. 'new' equipment not drawn in their textbooks). Teachers do not show interest in understanding how 'new' equipment works, for example by reading instructions that accompany equipment. For example, one teacher could not assemble a balance. This could have prompted a subject adviser to instruct teachers not to open science equipment until they were trained on how to use it. This means that teachers have to be workshoped on how to use every 'new' science equipment.

Practicals do not have clear objectives
According to White (1996: 761), there ought to be clear goals of laboratory teaching. Unfortunately, school textbooks in SA do not outline the objectives of a practical exercise or the science processes which the practical ought to enhance. This degenerates practicals to routine exercises that produce data mainly for calculations or for verifying textbook information, and nothing else. A practical such as "Experiment to prove Ohm's Law" produces data for calculations and graphs, but does not give a clue on how Ohm arrived at or what led Ohm to that Law. Other practicals just show phenomena - for example, 'Experiment to show that Hydrogen Sulphide is Oxidised to Sulphur and Water". From a learners' position - of what benefit is it to watch such things happen? These experiments are similar to taking a learner to the airport and showing him/her planes landing - the learner sees, may be smells, touches, and may report those experiences; only to find that the experiences are not of any immediate use. Experiments hardly relate with the learner's environment and real life, and do not tease the learner intellectually and practically. Teachers seem to believe that data has to conform to that in the textbook, or else the experiment has to be repeated (Muwanga-Zake, 1998). Biology experiments simplify otherwise very complicated processes, making them uninteresting. Overall, practical work may enhance interest in science and increase manipulative skills, as well as memory of content. However, the scientific value of practical work in South African classrooms is questionable. Roychoudhury (1996: 423) made similar observations that typically, laboratory work is seen as an exercise with a primary focus on the verification of established laws and principles, or on the discovery of objectively knowable facts.

Belief in objectively knowable facts
The belief in 'knowable facts', particularly in textbooks, is so entrenched that the author witnessed arguments in the former DET marking centres where some teachers 'believed' 'facts' without much proof (i.e. something was correct because Brink & Jones say so on a certain page, and candidates must be marked correct because they use that book). Any attempt to correct a book was often met with disbelief, even with the FDE candidates. Whether a practical is done or not, lessons are often statements of 'facts' or absolute truths from textbooks such that they cannot be challenged. Of course a school laboratory rarely has the resources to challenge such laws - i.e. the learner is forced to believe and memorise.

School environments
MacDonald & Rogan (1988) argue that some school environments demotivate learning. School environments that could be demotivating include poor physical structures such as dilapidated buildings, environments devoid of examples of 'school' science, and lack of facilities such as science equipment, laboratories and libraries, particularly in rural schools. For example, plane flights commonly used when teaching vectors can be appropriate to an urban learner may occasionally be exposed to planes; a rural learner has to do with imagination. The science in the streams and in the bush around the rural learner is rarely a part of the syllabus i.e., school science in not part of the learners' life. The author could not perform some of the experiments on light because there were no curtains at a school.

A well-equipped laboratory would probably stimulate learners' interest and practical tuition in science. Not so for Eastern Cape learners, where according to Jennings & Everett (1996), only 23% of Black schools had laboratories. The author found only 6 of the 21 schools with laboratories, and these were High schools. Junior schools, the level at which interest in science would better be inculcated, do not often have laboratories and are overcrowded. For example, near Kentane, the author attended a lesson on electricity for Grade 8 in 1998 that was conducted in an overcrowded classroom, with only one electricity circuit board, which only two learners, carefully selected by the teacher, were able to connect. The rest of the learners had to watch from a distance (Muwanga-Zake, 1998: 49). There is also a shortage of alternative resources at schools. For example, none of the 21 schools had a library, although Jennings & Everett (1996) alluded that 19% of Black schools in the Eastern Cape Province had libraries. Thus, the learners' constructions of knowledge are likely to be limited to textbook information.

Unusual science equipment
The science equipment is often strange to learners. The author conducted practical exercises during which learners interrogated the science equipment rather than the concepts they were supposed to learn from using that equipment. If teachers used to do the same when they were students, it was not surprising that some of them believed that learners gained from 'touching' and from 'seeing' the science equipment (Muwanga-Zake, 1998: 50). The experience highlighted the foreign nature of science and science equipment in schools, and highlights the problem in using equipment that is complicated and unusual to learners. It is evidence that Africa has not developed its own science knowledge and equipment. Furthermore, learners are rarely given a chance to study the equipment before it is used to teach them. 

Standard Grade (SG) vs. Higher Grade (HG); a drop in standards? 
Classroom problems such as those above can lower science standards. The increase in SG students has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of HG students, and a drop in pass rates (Table1). An increase in SG enrolments has not helped to improve pass rates, contrary to the aims of the DoE of trying to increase pass rates by advising learners to opt for SG. If SG is assumed to be easier to pass, falling pass rates accompanying higher SG enrolments represent falling standards. While it is disappointing that the DoE is much more concerned with passes than science standards (an interest which is probably also motivated politically and by the competition between provinces), information about the quality (validity and reliability) and relative difficulty indices of items in SG and HG papers is rarely provided. It is uncertain whether the SG and HG examiners of the same subject are obliged to compare the relative difficulty of their papers. Setting and moderating are part-time jobs for which there is limited time and resources that it is likely important analyses of examination items are not done. This suspicion is increased by some degree of secrecy about the method and extent of moderating marks. Short of such information, teachers are unaware of what requires improvement, and institutions cannot gauge correctly the standard of learners they are admitting. Overall, a question arises: What is the exact standard of science in South African schools? It is worth noting that the individual examiners and moderators in reality influence the standard and quality of science teaching particularly at Matric since teachers are often guided by past paper examinations in their teaching. While the DoE's inclusion of continuous assessment might reduce over-reliance upon Matric examinations, it is unlikely that the DoE will have enough resources to manage such a mammoth task. Consequently, the inclusion of year marks might lower the overall standards further as teachers are likely to exaggerate learners' marks to pass them as appears to be the case with English.

It is also debatable whether SA needs more SGs than HGs. The DoE should be aware that most institutions do not admit SGs into courses such as Engineering. Advice to pupils to register for SG prevents these learners from entering such professions. Furthermore, it is an admission that science standards at schools are below HG. Low standards are confirmed by tertiary institutions, which have established bridging courses for Matrics who want to join some courses. 

The teaching profession apparently absorbs SGs or poor HG passes
Most of the teachers the author managed to recruit into the FDE course had studied science at SG level or had obtained poor symbols at HG. Application forms of Matric candidates to tertiary institutions also seemed to indicate that HG students were not opting for teaching, or applied for teaching as a last resort. Thus, the teaching profession seems to have become a home to those who do not meet the academic requirements for courses like Engineering (besides those who could not afford the high fees charged for other courses). That the teaching profession could be absorbing SGs or poor HG passes can also explain why the majority of science teachers struggle with science. Such teachers would not be comfortable teaching HG (and this may cause the teacher to advise learners to register for SG, which they think they can teach comfortably).

Change to Curriculum 2005
Science education is also likely to suffer from changes in the curriculum and syllabi, which have changed almost every two years. A shift to Curriculum 2005 (C2005) has not been accompanied by a change in resources (including textbooks, which normally simply change covers). Hence, the author found teachers with an assortment of syllabi not knowing which one to follow or whether C2005 in fact uses syllabi. Teachers still had many questions about C2005, which were amplified further by the temporary change to Curriculum 21, and by the removal of some terminologies before reintroducing C2005. Curriculum 2005 uses Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) as an approach to facilitate learning. However, the OBE was hastily passed on to teachers (workshops attended by the author at Stirling Teacher Centre, East London, 1997). As the OBE did not evolve from within the South African cultural systems, teachers could be lacking its philosophical background and practical know-how. Hence the South African OBE is still modernist, involving the usual information transmission model, where knowledge is selected, organised into a lesson, and transmitted in a one-way flow to mainly passive recipients. The OBE, as a post-modern concept may find problems in a largely South African modernist society. For example, teachers are expected to recognise and measure rather abstract outcomes such as critical thinking, and group work has become a 'must' even where it may not be necessary, such that in one pilot school at Tabankulu, children organised in groups were instructed to keep quiet. Similarly, practical work and projects, still structured in the form of worksheets, in which 'the right' methods, language, structure and answers are followed or demanded, are claimed to be OBE. These examples show the looming danger of teachers adopting a hybrid between OBE and traditionally structured classroom approaches, similar to an undefined position between orbitals. This hybrid will be difficult to identify and correct. 

Structured approaches are often devoid of constructivism and may inhibit new discoveries in science since, according to Laing (1991: 10), many science discoveries were made accidentally. Structured approaches also discourage divergence, and so may not cater for African cultural belief systems in a science largely Western (often wrongly said to be 'global') such that a cultural - science divide may develop. Among the important factors of the divide is language.


The effects of culture, in particular of language, on science teaching or learning has been explored widely, by among others, Fish (in Lincoln & Denzin, 1994: 579), Solomon (1994: 5), Moje (1995), Atwater (1996), Ogunniyi (1996) and Henderson & Wellington (1998). All agree that science is not culture neutral. Atwater (1996: 828) states that traditional science teachers view science as being independent of mind or social context. This could be one of the reasons why language has not been considered important until lately. According to Henderson & Wellington (1998: 35) for many learners, the greatest barrier to learning science is language. The problem is that like many other African countries, SA has developed science curricula and content upon Western trends and teaches science mainly in English or Afrikaans.

The desire of teachers and learners to communicate in their mother tongue, Xhosa rather than English was experienced during interviews held in 1997 at Kentane (Muwanga-Zake, 1998: 37 English and Afrikaans, are not First languages for the majority of South Africans. Much more so in the Eastern Cape where according to the Education Foundation (1994: 130), 86% of people speak Xhosa, and most likely study English as a 2nd language at school. It is doubtful whether the authors of school materials (e.g. textbooks) consider language barriers or using English 2nd language. Thus the majority may not comprehend what is written or taught and may resort to memorising. Further complications arise from the difference between the normally scientific English that demands clarity and common English language usage. African Blacks suffer additional problems in that there could be no direct translations of concepts in vernacular. For example, the terms force, energy and power may all be referred to as 'amandla' in Xhosa. Thus the language barrier could account for the difficulty that learners and teachers find with science. Difficult subjects are likely to be avoided. 


Data provided by the DoE (Table 2 below) shows Education graduates separately from Science graduates. There is no data indicating science education graduates possibly because institutions often offer science and education separately and do not offer science education as a major subject. Further complications arise from the reluctance of institutions to give the numbers of science educators they have produced. So the number of science educators produced by institutions in SA appears to be a matter of conjecture. There is also no data on what the graduates in science education end up doing. Without such data, it may be difficult to plan resources needed for science education, and to access funding for training science teachers. That not much effort has apparently been put into obtaining such data, shows the little regard for science education as a profession in SA.

The increase in the number of Blacks (Table 2 below) in the fields of science is still below the proportion of Blacks in SA, and might not be increasing in concert with the increase in the Black population. The number of Blacks science educators is of particular importance, because more are needed in the, often Black, overcrowded classrooms, because of language and cultural issues. The DoE, however, decided to close 40 % of the teacher training colleges since 1994 (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 25) and has reported that the number of teacher colleges would drop from 81 in 1999, to about 50 in 2000, and to 25 by 2001 (DoE, Human Resources). This closure will, and is intended to cause a drop in the number of teachers produced, and sends a message that there are enough teachers. Thus private colleges of education, such as Bethel College at Butterworth, are not viable because they do not have enough students (Bethel: +/-120 in 1998 and 46 in 1999completed; but only +/-40 applicants so far for 2000). The DoE is in a process of incorporating the remaining teacher colleges into technikons, where, unfortunately, education does not seem to be a priority. For example, Table 2b shows that education graduates in technikons is below 4% (compared to a minimum of 24% in universities). Some technikons such as the Eastern Cape Technikon do not offer science education. EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS reports that there could be a shortage of educators in five years time. That shortage is likely to affect science much more because science has just been made compulsory up to Grade 9 in schools.

Table 2. Graduates in science and education 1991-1997. Data for 1998 to 2000 is not yet available.

2a By Universities


Life & Physical Sciences





Blacks %



Blacks %


2 385



10 818




2 525



11 839




2 555



12 460




2 653



12 963




2 712



14 332




2 913



17 401




3 054



18 310




2 858



15 462



Source: EMIS Directorate, 30th May 2000. (% Indicates % of the total number of graduates). Note: Prior to 1995, the National database excluded the so-called TBVC States.

2b By 15 Technikons


Life & Physical Sciences





Blacks %



Blacks %

























































Prior to 1995, the National database excluded Border, Eastern cape and North West. The increase in the % of Blacks could be due to inclusion of those technikons and the political changes in 1994.

Data for teacher training colleges was difficult to comprehend. Note that the data could therefore be excluding the majority of blacks.

Why is teaching science unpopular?
Although the reasons why science education is apparently unpopular are still to be researched, teachers and learners generally perceive to be 'difficult'. Furthermore, Ogunniyi (1996) suggests that science teachers suffer from low morale due to being overworked, and from low salaries compared to scientists in industry. Teaching science at school requires more input than other subjects, because the teacher has to prepare for practical work and to care for the equipment and the laboratory. Yet the author as a science teacher had the same number of periods and classes as teachers for other subjects. Similarly, other factors such as over-crowding create more work for a science teacher than for example a mathematics teacher. Such relatively higher loads due to science teaching prevail in many schools and could make science unpopular. 

Table 3. Science Teachers produced by institutions

Organisation & Course








CASME (Rhodes) FDE (2yrs part-time)





(9) 11

PE Technikon

Nat. Dipl: Ed. Nat. Sc.










* 4


Bethel College



+/- 120



Potchestroom Univ. (HED, Phy. Sc.)






The number in brackets indicates intake and the number out of brackets indicate output. It should be pointed out that most of the institutions were reluctant to supply data whilst others did not seem to know the number of science educators they have produced in the past. Data was obtained by e-mail from those institutions in the table.

      * 3 of these reported to have left SA

     8 BEd: Curriculum studies: Natural Sciences and Technology (5th year level) students at UCT. (Source: Prof. Rotchford)

     HDE Methods = 5 physical science + 3 biology teachers in-training at UCT (Source: Prof. Rotchford)

     A lecturer at PE technikon said that she had no applicants in 1999 and 2000.

     The number of final year maths and science students at the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Witwatersrand dropped from 121 in 1996 to 37 in 1999 (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 25)

     A Northern Province programme to produce maths and science educators attracted only 40 in 1998, and 10 in 1999 instead of the planned 100 per year. (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 25)

   SYSTEM initiative aimed at 1000 learners, but attracted    around 90 (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 25)

Science teachers seem to miss opportunities for promotion such that science educators are scarce in senior posts such as in the directorship, to the extent that non-scientists manage some of the science projects in the DoE. Whether it is because science educators are relatively fewer or are considered unsuitable for administrative work, their absence from higher positions might imply that important policy decisions are made without professional inputs from science educators. Furthermore, the job market seems to indicate that jobs for science educators could be scarcer than is generally believed. This unemployability could be evidence of syllabi often designed upon global trends, but possibly irrelevant in African contexts. Science taught at school rarely leads to self-employment or to job creation. Ogunniyi (1996: 271) wonders whether secondary school products are employable, especially where, for example, some of the technical graduates are jobless. Apparently, the claim that science is important is not accompanied by the knowledge of what kind of science and curriculum translates into wealth and improvement in the quality of life in Africa. A science teacher at Kentane could have furthered studies in commercial courses with employment opportunities in mind (Muwanga-Zake, 1998).

Table 3 above shows that the number of science education students in institutions is dropping in contrast to Table 2, which showed an increase. The implication is that either the institutions appearing in Table 3 are failing to attract applicants, or Table 2 indicates education graduates specialising in other subjects. During telephone conversations with the author (July, 2000), institutions seemed to have difficulty in enrolling post-Matric students into science education and The Education Foundation (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 25) reports that some universities and colleges could not find enough students to fill all places. This trend could have led institutions to concentrate on in service teachers, which, although urgently needed, depends upon the interest of teachers in science education (apparently waning), whether the DoE can afford study leave to teachers, and whether teachers can invest their meagre incomes into studying. The DoE does not offer any more study leave to teachers, although it does so for its officers. However, this may be attributed to the absence of activism from teacher unions requesting for further training.

When the author attempted to recruit teachers for the FDE course at Rhodes University, teachers complained about fees affordability. EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS (March, 2000: 25) reports that the DoE stopped providing teaching bursaries four years ago. Furthermore, science education requires teachers to attend practicals, which introduces travelling and accommodation expenses when studying science.

The FDE science education candidates at Rhodes University in 1998 apparently viewed the FDE course largely as a means of entry into a Bachelor of Education (BEd.) course and all of them have proceeded with a BEd. However, only one of the nine FDE science educators is studying for a BEd in science education: the rest hope to proceed with managerial courses after their general BEd. course. In this case the FDE could also be seen as a channel out of the classroom. in science education possibly because it would not be viable due to small numbers of applicants, and because it is expensive to organise practicals. The unpopularity of science education at a BEd. level has created an unhealthy gap between a diploma in science education and a Master of Education in science education, which makes a candidate loose touch with science while tempting him/her to other fields. 

Courses are also advertised as means of gaining promotion to a higher scale. Unfortunately for teachers, the main employer, the DoE, seems to have suspended promotions, and no longer rewards higher qualification with salary increments as it used to do. On the whole therefore, there is not much that attracts teachers into further training in the profession, and into science education in particular.

A drop in science education students has caused institutions to commit fewer funds and staff to science education, and to freeze new appointments and promotions for science educators, who are at the same under pressure to find students. Merging education departments with humanities in some institutions could slow down research in education. 


The rhetoric about the importance of science is not accompanied with funding. Furthermore, it seems that most of the funding to NGOs was redirected through the DoE after the 1994 elections. This is because NGOs were conceived as vehicles towards improving education in disadvantaged, mostly Black communities, which funders believe are well served by the government. The government prefers 'holistic' interventions, which normally include school management, English, Mathematics, and Science. Holistic approaches distribute funds and resources equally among these different fields - i.e. science does not get the priority it should have. Therefore, NGOs such as CASME are currently experiencing difficulty in obtaining funding for improving science education, while others such as the Primary Science Project (PSP), and All Saints College have closed. The SYSTEM initiative foundered partly due to lack of ownership, resource constraints and national-provincial divide (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 26)

Table 4. Funding (in 1 000 Rand) towards Science Education to CASME in the Eastern Cape.

Source of funding




















Daimler Chrysler


















Funders have also advised CASME to be innovative, but most of the Black communities are still too disadvantaged to sustain such projects. For example, rural schools do not have science laboratories and equipment partly because of their low social economic standards - they cannot raise the necessary resources, as do the former Model C schools. For the same reason, rural communities experience difficulties in starting and maintaining resource centres. Funders overlook the fact that it is the lack of financial and professional capacity that necessitates these interventions, and that capacity takes time to build. An example is the Gcuwa Resource Centre at Butterworth, managed by CASME, which is now functioning under financial and human resource constraints after Daimler Chrysler, which started the project, appears reluctant to fund the Centre, believing that the Centre should be self-reliant after the two years of existence. Other projects do not fulfil their commitments, such as those by ESKOM, OSF and TELKOM in Table 4 above. Such experiences have eroded teachers' interest in interventions.

It is also worrying that outreach programmes do not last long enough to make the desired impact. Project evaluations are not appropriate, especially because such evaluations are based upon unrealistic expectations and Matric results. Funders demonstrate a misunderstanding of education in their demand for immediate improvement in results, but probably do so because they use such funding for advertising their organisations (other incentives include tax rebates and availability of skilled labour). The need to advertise implies that a government-supported intervention is a priority especially where a senior government official is involved. A change in the funder's administration often alters the funding.


The discussion above was based on a small sample, but highlights serious problems that could lead to a crisis in science education. These problems need to be researched urgently. The discussion also shows that SA has tried to improve science but could be experiencing problems in implementing the policies on science in the classroom. 

All the problems highlighted above basically require funding. The DoE seems to have received much funding. For example, 1 billion Rand was donated to SA by the European Union in 1994 (SABC PM LIVE, 7th November 2000). However, the proportion spent on science education does not seem to match the importance of science.


1. Multicultural approaches to science education.
Multicultural science education aims at providing equitable opportunities, which includes an understanding of realities constructed by individuals from various cultural groups, and how these realities can be reconstituted to include scientific reality (Atwater 1996: 821). Cummins 1986 (in Atwater 1996: 831) identified four areas for empowering: a) incorporation of students' culture and language in teaching of science, b) collaborative participation of the community in schools and science classrooms, c) orientation of science pedagogy toward reciprocal interaction, and d) advocacy rather than legitimacy of failure as a goal for science assessment, and these could be relevant to SA. 
2. Lagos Plan of Action Conference for Economic Development of Africa (1980-2000) (Ogunniyi, 1996).
However, there is need to allocate more resources towards science development. 

3. Finding funds specifically for employing and/or promoting science educators regardless of the number of science education students.

4. Special bursaries for science teachers (B. Gray, reported in (EDUSOURCE DATA NEWS, March 2000: 26). There must be an intensive in-service training.

5. Science teachers must pass practicals and Laboratory management must be part of teacher training.

6. Allocate fewer periods to science teachers or pay science teachers higher salaries in form of a laboratory allowance.

6. Create a database of science educators in service, in training, and those that graduate each year. 

7. Create an examination panel to manage and control examinations.

8. Establish a minimum period of funding an intervention. Design realistic project evaluation criteria. Funders ought to adhere to their promises.

9. Teachers should have obtained excellent results in science at school.

10. Supply of science equipment must be accompanied by training on how to use that equipment.


Atwater, M. .M. 1996. Social Constructivism: Infusion into the Multicultural Science Education Research Agenda. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Vol. 33, No. 8, pp. 821-837.

Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education (CASME). 1992. A guide to building high-school science laboratories.

Department of Education, Annual Report 1998.

Department of Education, Pretoria. EMIS Directorate, May/June 2000 (e-mail contact with Christo Lombaard)

Henderson, J. & Wellington, J. 1998. Lowering the language barrier in learning and teaching science. School Science Review, March 1998. 79(288) (pp 35-46)

Jennings R., & Everett, D. 1996. Education for servitude? A survey of "out-of-school youth" in South Africa: Eastern Cape. Designed and analysed for the out-of-school Children and Youth Policy and Research Initiative and the Department of Education by the Community Agency for Social Inquiry (CASE).

Lincoln, Y. S. & Denzin, N. K. (1994). The Fifth Moment. In N. K.Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research. 118 - 137. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc.

MacDonald, M. A. & Rogan, J. M. 1988. Innovation in South African Science Education (Part I): Science teaching observed. Science Education 72(2): 225-236.

Moje, E. B. 1995. Talking about Science: An Interpretation of the Effects of Teacher Talk in a High School Science Classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Vol. 32, No. 4, (pp 349-371).

Muwanga-Zake, J. W. F. 1998. Research portfolio submitted as partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of a degree of Master of Education (Science education) of Rhodes University.

Ogunniyi, M B 1996. Science, technology and mathematics: the problem of developing critical human capital in Africa. International Journal of Science Education. Vol. 18, No. 3, 267-284.

Robottom, I & Hart, P. 1993. Towards a meta-search agenda in science and environmental education. International Journal of Science education. Vol. 15, No. 5, 591-605.

Roychoudhury, A. 1996. Interactions in an open-inquiry physics laboratory. International Journal of Science Education. Vol. 18, No. 4 (pp 423-445).

South African Broadcasting Corporation, PM Live program, 10th January 2000. 

South African Broadcasting Corporation, PM Live program, 7th November 2000

Smit, J. Shocking facts about electricity teaching. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the South African Association for Research in Mathematics and Science Education. First Annual Meeting, 28-31 January 1993.

The Education Foundation 1994. The Education Atlas of South Africa. Durban: An education Foundation publication.

White, R. T. 1996. The link between the laboratory and learning. International Journal of science Education. Vol. 15, No. 5, 591-605 



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