Overcoming South Africa’s Maths Challenge


In 2018, less than half of South African learners chose to study pure maths for matric, and of those, only 37% passed with 40% or more.

Despite much emphasis being placed on mathematics over the last few years, the recent matric results show that the majority of South Africa’s learners have significant gaps in understanding, or opt for mathematical literacy as a subject, which limits access to higher-level careers in a digital, knowledge economy.

And, in a real-life demonstration of compounding interest, each year that goes by the conceptual gaps grow as learners move up grades. So, gaps in understanding in early school years widen considerably as the learner progresses through high school, to the point that they simply can’t engage with the curriculum anymore. Research[1] shows that these gaps exist along socioeconomic lines, with the poorest 60% of schools having persistent acquired learning deficits in mathematics of, on average, four grade levels by the time they reach the end of grade 9.

This is the challenge that Reflective Learning, a Cape Town-based edtech startup, has set out to tackle with its diagnostic and targeted catch-up based approach. By identifying gaps in learning that originated in earlier grades, and then addressing early concepts with a personalised, reflective learning approach, it is possible to catch-up the equivalent of six grades in one year[2].

“Our aim is to increase opportunities to access mathematics, open doors to tertiary studies in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields and ignite a lifelong love for learning,”

says Eugene Pelteret, Managing Director of Reflective Learning.

“South Africa needs to tackle the challenge of learning gaps head on. The thousands of assessments we completed during our pilots showed us that some learners are functioning up to seven grades behind the grade they are in.”

“However, with the Reflective Learning approach, it is possible for learners already in high school to catch-up and excel in maths, if they are given the opportunity and are willing to put in the effort,”

says Pelteret.

Since every learner’s deficits are unique, their subsequent learning needs to be personalised. Reflective Learning helps parents and teachers to pinpoint each child’s gaps in understanding and then fast-tracks catching up on their missed learning so that learners can engage fully in class.

How Reflective Learning started

In 2014, Tracey Butchart, a maths and science teacher with three decades’ experience, and now Reflective Learning’s director and education expert, was asked to monitor Uplands Outreach’s Saturday enrichment programme, called Learners for Excellence. Using the first iteration of Reflective Learning’s diagnostic approach, she helped grade 10 learners progress by between three and six grades within a year. Those learners went on to excel in their matric maths results and the majority went on to achieve in university, demonstrating the legacy of the intervention.

Butchart realised that it’s not too late for learners in grade 10 to both catch up and to excel at maths. Also, a personalised, metacognitive approach – where the learner is taught to think about how they learn and think -- helps to accelerate learning by creating self-motivated, empowered learners that take ownership of their own education – ideally for the rest of their lives.

Excited by the potential of this educational approach, in 2015 Butchart teamed up with technology company Lightswitch Solutions to form Reflective Learning, and scale the learning approach. The first prototype of the online assessment tool was built in 2016, and has since been tested it in a range of environments, from urban to rural and townships, from desktops, to tablets and mobile phones. These pilots have included more than 3,500 learner assessments in around 25 schools, afterschool programmes and tutoring centres in urban and rural areas, as well as individual learners at home.

The diagnostic tool is available online for parents, teachers and large-scale education intervention projects wanting to measure their impact. It provides immediate results with personalised feedback for every learner. Also available is personalised catch-up material for high school learners that focuses on the numbers component of maths, and takes learners from wherever they are for each critical concept up to Grade 9 level.

In 2019 Reflective Learning will release further catch-up material focusing on fractions, as well as a natural science diagnostic tool. In addition, it will work with the Telkom Foundation in seven schools in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

How it works:

  1. Diagnostics identify exactly where the gaps in learning are and how far back they go, measuring the mastery of foundational conceptual landmarks across seven threads of maths, benchmarked at three levels.
  1. Personalised reflective journals target the gaps identified through the diagnostic while developing metacognitive skills for independent learning.
  1. Re-assessments help to identify whether the learner has mastered each concept, as well as informing the next step in their learning.


About Reflective Learning

Reflective Learning are experts in identifying gaps in learning acquired from early grades for targeted catch-up. By diagnosing conceptual understanding and addressing early concepts with a reflective approach, the programme has shown that it is possible to catch up the equivalent of six grades in a single year.


[1] Dr Nic Spaull & Janeli Kotze’s “Starting behind and staying behind in South Africa: the case of insurmountable learning deficits in mathematics”. 

[2] Tracey Butchart, Craig Pournara, Patrick Barmby’s “Using a Diagnostic Assessment As Learning – Conceptual Thread Approach in Addressing Acquired Learning Deficits in Mathematics in South Africa”.

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