As the education system fails successive generations, roleplayers at every level have an obligation to ensure every pupil has the best possible chance of success, writes Thabo Masete
This month marks the beginning of another school year, with the attendant excitement and rites of passage for little ones starting school for the first time. Sometimes there are tears as parents and grandparents realise they’re seeing the kids take a step towards adulthood.
Around the country, the children at government schools will sit two-by-two at unfamiliar desks in new, unfamiliar uniforms, excited and perhaps a little nervous.
Even those who start their learning journey sitting on the floor or in a field will have dreams of an education that leads to a fulfilling career.
But behind that poignancy lurks a cruel truth: only one of the two youngsters at each desk will complete high school.
Education specialist Nic Spaull estimates that of 100 learners that start school, around 55 will make it to matric, about 45 will pass matric, 14 will qualify to go to university, and only six will get an undergraduate degree within six years.
The Centre for Development and Enterprise found that:
• 2021: after a year of school more than 50% of Grade 1 learners don’t know all the letters in the alphabet
• 2016 (the last time these tests were conducted): 78% of Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning – in any language.
• 2019: 62% of Grade 5 learners do not have “basic mathematical knowledge”.
• 2020/ 2021: Covid 19 lockdowns devastated learning in SA (as elsewhere). Experts believe the average 10-year-old knows less than the average 9-year-old before the pandemic.
This is a tragedy on many levels: On an individual level, each child failed by the government’s education system represents thwarted dreams and missed opportunities for dignity and livelihood. It means that each year, thousands of youngsters leave school academically unequipped for the world that awaits them. It means many will be sentenced to a cycle of generational poverty.
As a human resources professional, this concerns me deeply, because it means the pool of talent available is far, far smaller than it has the potential to be.
At a national level, it means SA perpetuates its ignominious distinction of having the world’s most unequal society.
We need to spell that out for what it is: a fundamental failure and a violation of the right of our nation’s children to an education.
It’s especially lamentable considering that SA has one of the world’s highest rates of investment in education per capita. We spend, for example, more than countries including France, the UK and Australia and almost double that of Spain. According to the World Bank, SA is the world’s biggest underperformer in education among countries with a similar GDP per capita.
The Institute for Race Relations put it like this: “Of course, if not enough was being spent on it then that would be an instant red flag. But this is in fact the opposite in South Africa’s case. The share of budgeted expenditure – government spending that is – for 2022/23 will be higher for education than any other portfolio, a whopping 19.9%, totalling R429.7 billion.”
Prof Mark Tomlinson wrote recently: “Learning is progressive and builds on what comes before. Early deficits left unremedied have lifelong consequences. In theory, where there is a deficit, intensive remediation is possible and children not able to read for meaning at the end of Grade 4 can be helped to course correct.
“But in the vast majority of SA schools, there is no remediation; no course correction. In fact, in most cases the further children go through school the worse the teaching will become.”
The researchers found serious gaps in early childhood development, which hampers these kids’ performance in school.
“Our country cannot afford to lose yet another generation of learners by not giving them the key capabilities they need to succeed at higher levels of education,” it said.
Earlier this year the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) launched a series of reports on SA’s education system today. The CDE’S Executive Director, Ann Bernstein, pointed out that many countries poorer than SA outperform in key education benchmarks, including Morocco, Egypt, Georgia, Kosovo and Albania.
“We need to ask why SA’s schooling system performs so badly,” says Ms Bernstein. “An accurate diagnosis is a precondition for deciding how to fix this system. The poverty of learners and their families as well as ongoing infrastructural deficits all play a role. However, critical structural issues have to be addressed, including teaching standards.
There are many, many skilled and experienced teachers who change the lives of their pupils. But there aren’t enough of those. Also, the NGO School Days reports that half of SA’s teachers are over the age of 55 and will retire in coming years, and SA is simply not training nearly enough teachers to replace them.
There are some points of light in this dark scene: The improvement in matric results last year is a testament to the dedication of learners and teachers, often under difficult conditions. So too are the improved results in ICT studies: maths and science. Nevertheless, the 50% dropout rate throughout the 12-year schooling cycle remains a stain on our society.
But rather than being filled with rage and despair, we must acknowledge that helping deliver quality education has a multiplier effect more potent than other socioeconomic interventions: employability and empowerment to become an entrepreneur and breadwinner.
So, addressing one of SA’s pressing social ills – lack of access to good education at government schools – addresses the others: poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Achieving that is within the grasp of roleplayers in business, civil society and government if they cooperate, and there are good, inspiring examples of where that’s working. We can acknowledge and celebrate that in the knowledge that the scale of the task remains vast and daunting.
Examples: As part of Ford Motor Company of South Africa marking its centenary in this country, 100 early childhood development (ECD) centres will be built in underprivileged areas, funded by Ford South Africa and facilitated by Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The Ford Motor Company Fund and Ford South Africa will fund 100 maths and science labs for primary schools in partnership with Maersk and the Gift of the Givers Foundation.
The fund will award 100 scholarships to highly motivated young South Africans in technical high schools and TVET colleges to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The three projects total an R85m investment.
The company has also committed to a five-year, R1m sponsorship for 10 academically distinguished but economically disadvantaged students through the Student Sponsorship Programme (SSP).
Since the inception of the READ Educational Trust in 1999, the company has supported this crucial intervention through Rally to Read, which facilitates teacher training, ensuring that educators are armed with the tools and methodologies required to guide young minds toward literacy and language proficiency.
Many organisations are doing what they can, where they are, with what they have, to address a public education system that’s in tatters. They take to heart Nelson Mandela’s ethos that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world. Will we reach a point where every child who starts Grade 1 will finish matric or an equivalent? We owe it to each generation starting school each year to aim for precisely that.
• Thabo Masete is Human Resources Executive Director at Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa