Thursday, April 19, 2012

South Africa: Short-Changing South Africa’s Youth: the Collapse of an Education System?

Classroom in South Africa

Source: ISS

Short-Changing South Africa’s Youth: the Collapse of an Education System?

Hopolang Selebalo,  Junior Researcher, Governance and Corruption Division, ISS Cape Town 

It is a well-known fact that basic education is a fundamental driver of human development. Enhancing individuals’ literacy and numeracy skills is beneficial for increased productivity and economic growth. The ISS African Futures Project policy brief, Knowledge Empowers Africa, highlights that it is imperative for African countries to increase educational spending in order to reap the rewards of a more educated population. Economics and education expert George Psacharopoulus points out that there is a connection between additional investment in primary and secondary education and private wage returns, stating that a full 17, 2% of the economic growth rate in Africa is explained by education. Although investment in primary and secondary education is a near-certain positive investment in economic and human development, there is much more to the story than simply increasing financing.

South Africa is an example of a country that has spent abundantly on education. Currently about 5% of its GDP goes to education, which, according to Moneyweb, puts it broadly in line with countries such as the US, Holland and Austria. Spending on education in South Africa has resulted in increased access to schooling for a large number of learners in the country. According to the National Planning Commission (NPC) diagnostic overview, the overall gross enrolment ratio in the country is 92%, but not all learners manage to stay enrolled and complete schooling. Despite this financial investment in one of the most basic rights stipulated in the Constitution, the quality of education provided by state schools in the country is floundering. What then, are the challenges facing the country when it comes to providing quality education for its people?

The state of education in South Africa has been in the media spotlight for the past few months. The effects of apartheid had left the new dispensation with an unequal education system that has been difficult to rectify. In their research report, Low Quality Education as a Poverty Trap, Servaas van der Berg et al of the University of Stellenbosch acknowledge that the current education system generally provides outcomes that reinforce patterns of poverty and privilege instead of challenging them.

The NPC highlights, in its diagnostic overview, that apart from a small minority of black children who attend former white schools and a small number of schools performing well in largely black areas, the quality of education black children receive remains poor. Literacy and numeracy test scores are low by African and global standards, despite the investment in education. A 2010-2011 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report shows that South Africa is ranked 137th out of 139 countries for quality in mathematics and science education, and 125th for the quality of primary school education.

To put this into perspective, a report on the Annual National Assessments of 2011, released by the Department of Basic Education, revealed that grade 3 learners scored an average of 35% in literacy tests and 28% in numeracy tests, while grade 6 learners scored 28% in languages and 30% in mathematics. The standard of the results achieved by matric learners at state schools has also been an area of contention. The NPC diagnostic overview points out that while there have been some improvements in the pass rate of those who sat for the 2010 matriculation exam, which was 67.8%, this hides the fact that only 15% achieved an average mark of 40% or more. The diagnostic also states that about one million learners exit the school system annually, of whom 65% exit without obtaining a grade 12 (matric) certificate. This is a bleak picture for South Africa’s education system. What then are the underlying causes, if not money?

It seems several factors play a role. A study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council found that almost 20% of teachers are absent from schools on Mondays and Fridays. The rate of absenteeism increased to one-third at month-end, despite the assertion by the NPC that South Africa’s teachers are among the highest paid in the world (in terms of purchasing power parity).

Another factor that may contribute to poor education outcomes could be the conditions under which learners are taught. A keynote address given by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga at a 94+ Schools project launch held earlier this month, revealed that schools throughout the country have an insufficient number of classrooms, laboratories and libraries. At this point 1 069 schools need to be provided with water, 14 989 need libraries and 18 258 need laboratories.

Van der Berg et al also point out that financial resources have brought little improvement to weak schools, thus concurring that funding is not the issue. They highlight that learners in low-income communities often attend schools that lack discipline, are weakly managed and have few qualified and experienced teachers.

The Eastern Cape provides an example of a province in distress when it comes to educational outcomes. Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille caused outrage recently when she claimed that learners from the Eastern Cape studying in the Western Cape were ‘education refugees’ – declaring that the latter provides a better education. The state of education in the Eastern Cape is indeed alarming; so much so that learners from the Menziwa Senior Secondary School burned down their school. A Mail & Guardian article highlights that this came about after the school’s staff, parents and learners had made appeals to the provincial education department to address problems such as prefabricated classrooms with holes in the walls and exposed electric wires. The problem remained unaddressed.

The issues highlighted above may be additional causes of the poor quality of education provided by the state. The NPC National Development Plan examines two factors as being largely responsible for the failings of the school system. Firstly, the Development Plan states that the schooling system lacks capacity in terms of teachers and principals; alluding to a lack of qualified teachers and to principals lacking in leadership skills. The second contributing factor is the manner in which civil servants in the education departments are appointed. It is stated that nepotism and the appointment of unsuitable candidates further weakens government capacity. Van der Berg et al also state that alongside the presence of qualified and experienced teachers in the public schooling system, other factors such as access to textbook and learning materials as well as classroom performance, among others, should contribute to the improvement of educational outcomes.