Lifestyle / Family

Choosing between mathematical literacy and mathematics in school

The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA)

What is the difference between mathematics and mathematical literacy and why choose one over the other?


When it comes to choosing your school subjects, the reality is many learners and perhaps parents do not understand the importance of the choice or the difference between mathematical literacy and mathematics. But pick the wrong one and the consequences for your child’s future can be disastrous.

Studies show that it is better for you to get 40% in mathematics than it is to get 100% in mathematical literacy. This is because it is harder to get into university if you take mathematical literacy. You need an A or level 7 code to enter most universities with mathematical literacy and even then your career choices will be severely limited as many career paths do not allow maths literacy learners to follow them.”

Yet the reality is, many parents are unsure of what the difference actually is between these two subjects. Here is a quick breakdown between the two.

What is the difference?

Mathematics deals with theories and concepts and problems not necessarily encountered in everyday life (think trigonometry, algebra and basic calculus). In contrast to this, mathematical literacy deals with common practical problems like budgeting, interest calculations etc.

To the practical parent or learner looking at the above over-simplified definition, mathematical literacy may be a tempting choice. Surprisingly, however, the more “practical” subject is the least useful to a learner’s future.

This is because, at its heart, mathematics teaches a level of problem-solving that learners who do not take this subject are not exposed to. For this reason, and many others, once you choose to take maths literacy over mathematics, you cannot change subjects. This means that if your child is looking to pursue a university degree leading to careers in the fields of accounting, medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry, IT and more (or even if they are not sure what they want to study yet), by not choosing mathematics, your child will be immediately excluded from such qualifications and the career opportunities they provide.

Less obvious is the fact that learners with mathematics will also be more likely to be accepted to non-mathematics-related qualifications than their more “practical” mathematical-literacy counterparts.

So why then do some schools push maths literacy on their learners?

Schools tend to focus on matric pass rates and “university passes”. Yet learners and their parents should remember that a so-called “university pass” does not necessarily equate to earning a prized spot at a university. Competition is fierce. There are always more applicants than places.

Some learners may be convinced that it is their destiny to be a poet or movie star. They may argue that they do not need matric, let alone a pass that includes mathematics. This is all very well but why limit your options? Life is long. Desires may change as you mature. At 15, it is difficult to commit to a single path. By choosing mathematics learners are hedging their bets and increasing their life options.

How to guide your child in the very important decision of subject choice

  • Take the time to ensure your child is aware of the importance of the decision and its future consequences. There are real consequences to this decision.
  • Listen to teachers’ recommendations but realise that the ultimate decision is yours and your child’s. If a teacher suggests maths literacy, question their logic and motives. See if they withstand your scrutiny.
  • Most teachers have learners’ best interests at heart. Unfortunately, it is possible that a dishonourable few may give other agendas priority. They may suggest mathematical literacy due to a conflict of interest. Mathematical literacy is an easier subject. Consequently, on average, the results of the learners who take mathematical literacy will be higher than if they had chosen mathematics. This makes the school and the teacher look better.
  • Explain to your child the benefits of taking the more challenging subject. This is particularly relevant to learners that find mathematics difficult. Focus their attention on the obvious benefits of mathematics as a subject choice. Let them know that while mathematics is hard, it is doable. All it takes to succeed is patience. Studies show that what makes people good at mathematics is the amount of time and energy they take in practicing getting it right.

Making increasingly important decisions is part of growing up. Life is a game in which the stakes are real. Making our children aware of this is our responsibility as parents. The process of choosing matric subjects provides an opportunity for parental guidance where it matters most. Make it count!


SAICA, South Africa’s pre-eminent accountancy body, is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading accounting institutes. The Institute provides a wide range of support services to more than 46 000 members and associates who are chartered accountants [CAs(SA)], as well as associate general accountants (AGAs(SA)) and accounting technicians (ATs(SA)), who hold positions as CEOs, MDs, board directors, business owners, chief financial officers, auditors and leaders in every sphere of commerce and industry, and who play a significant role in the nation’s highly dynamic business sector and economic development.

Chartered Accountants are highly valued for their versatile skill set and creative lateral thinking, that’s why the top 100 Global Brands all employ Chartered Accountants*.

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