BEING a former teacher myself, education remains one of the subjects close to my heart.

BEING a former teacher myself, education remains one of the subjects close to my heart.

This is one reason why I empathise with the challenges faced by the various ministers who are responsible for turning the country's education around.

A recent chat I had with a friend really brought to the fore the mammoth task they are charged with. It is common knowledge that South African scholars, especially black scholars, fall short when it comes to critical subjects such as mathematics and science.

The talk with my friend actually opened my eyes to the fact that one of the reasons that such a situation prevails is because of the attitude children have towards a subject like maths.

My friend - who teaches maths at one of those schools in the backwaters of Limpopo - told me that, as is usually the case, there are very few pupils studying the subject.

What really floored him was when one of the few pupils who was good at the subject announced that he wanted to drop pure maths and do maths literacy.

When asked why, the pupil said: "Because I do not want to be a doctor."

The pupil said he did not see any reason why he should continue "torturing" himself by learning such a difficult subject, for which he would have no use.

My friend went on to explain to the young man that there were many other career opportunities if he did well in mathematics.

These included being an engineer, an industrial designer, a quantity surveyor or even an accountant.

He explained what all the mentioned professionals do and how specialised their skills are.

The pupil was obviously not impressed with my friend's attempt at career guidance. A week later the boy dropped out of the maths class.

This case highlights two other things. First, the importance of career guidance in schools, and second, the need to work on the mindset of pupils when it comes to subjects such as maths and science.

Unfortunately, this attitude extends from or is even transmitted by some of our teachers. This is the notion that maths is difficult and that black children, especially, are not cut out for the subject.

Anyone who saw the movie Stand and Deliver starring Edward James Olmos will know how unfounded and self-defeating such an attitude is.

The 1988 film dramatises the work of Jaime Escalante, a dedicated mathematics teacher who leaves his steady job to join Garfield High School in Los Angeles county in California, determined to change the system and challenge the students to a higher level of achievement.

Garfield High was a rowdy school where very little teaching and learning took place - where violence by both pupils and school officials was the order of the day.

While Escalante teaches maths 1A (basic arithmetic), he realises that his pupils can progress, so he decides to teach them calculus.

Escalante develops a programme in which his pupils can rise to take AP (advanced placement) calculus by their senior year. The challenge is that Escalante does his work in an environment where pupils are faced with poverty, high crime, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy.

With Escalante to help them, the young people soon find the courage to distance themselves from society's expectations of failure and rise to the standard that Escalante knows they can achieve.

What the film tells us is that pupils, given the necessary support, can rise above all the expectations of failure cast upon them.

This is the small contribution that all stakeholders in the education of this nation's children can make to assist the likes of Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande in achieving their dream of transforming our education system.