A teacher faces a packed classroom in a school in Mthatha. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
A teacher faces a packed classroom in a school in Mthatha. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Education expert Nic Spaull believes a fundamental problem with SA’s education system is that not all students are equipped with the basics in primary school. This comes after the Spectator Index ranked SA’s youth unemployment rate as the highest in the world.

Of the countries it ranked‚ the Spectator Index said the five countries with the highest youth unemployment were SA at 52.8%; followed by Greece (36.8%)‚ Spain (34.9%)‚ Nigeria (33.1%) and Italy (32.5%).

SA’s poor foundation-phase education system has repeatedly been linked to the country’s skills shortage.

Spaull told TimesLIVE on Tuesday, that  “78% of grade 4 children can’t read for meaning in any language and 61% of grade 5s can’t do basic maths. I think that is where the wheels come off and that’s where we should be focusing our attention.”

Last week‚ basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced that the matric class of 2018 achieved an overall pass rate of 78.2%, which is an improvement on the previous year. The class of 2017 achieved a 75.1% pass rate‚ itself an improvement from the 72.5% pass rate in 2016.

In total‚ 790‚843 pupils wrote the 2018 exams‚ either full-time or part-time. It was the fourth-largest group of matrics to register for the final exams.

Spaull has raised concerns about the 2018 matric results‚ especially the high drop-out rate of pupils before they reach grade 12. In a tweet last week he promised to keep revealing the truth behind the figures‚ “until minister of [basic] education Angie Motshekga starts reporting and emphasising the 400‚000 kids that dropped out of school”.

He added that there was no proof of their education status and that these drop-outs are “almost certainly unemployed” and don’t go on to further education and training (FET) institutions. 

Spaull used a graph to illustrate that more than a million students registered for grade 1 in 2007, but only 512‚700 — 51% —  wrote matric examinations in 2018.

The surge in passes that allow entrance to a bachelor degree has also been a concern for Spaull. He said in 2017 that there were 153‚610 such passes‚ which increased by 12% to 172‚043 in 2018.

“I think it’s quite clear that the main reason the bachelor pass rate has increased is that the qualifying criteria changed in March 2018‚” he said. Pupils previously had to get 50% or more in four designated subjects, he said, but now they only need 50% or more in any four subjects.

The designated list was of 18 subjects, which includes‚ among others, geography‚ mathematics‚ business studies‚ economics‚ mathematics literacy‚ accounting‚ history and consumer studies. 

“So tourism and hospitality, which weren’t eligible subjects, are now eligible subjects. This is the first year this is the case. That explains a lot of the 12% increase in bachelor passes‚” Spaull said.   

Economist Mike Schussler responded to Spaull on Twitter‚ commenting: “Explains a lot. Will the new graduates actually get jobs? Judging from the QLFS [quarterly labour force survey]  numbers less are. This is a worry as the skills we need are not the capabilities the paper says young people have.”

The QLFS released by Statistics SA in July 2018 revealed there were 6.2-million unemployed people between the ages of 15 and 24. This is a greater number than the population of neighbouring Lesotho‚ Botswana and eSwatini, which have a combined population of 5.8-million.

To combat unemployment‚ President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative last year. Its aim is to give a million young people “work opportunities” in the next three years. SA also hosted a jobs summit in October‚ which was attended by representatives of the public and private sectors.