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Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP is often used to measure spending on education across countries, and by this metric SA ranks quite well. It spends about 6.5%, well above the global average — Japan, for example, spends 3.5%, and Switzerland 5%.

But what is the return on this investment? The percentage of children benefiting from education programmes at age five increased from 30% in 2002 to 85% in 2013. The share of young adults without an upper secondary education dropped from 27% to 18% between 2008 and 2018.

That is where the good news ends. Take your pick of any of the recent global indices that measure education outcomes, such as those of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, World Economic Forum or UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and they all tell the same story: SA ranks close to the bottom regarding the quality of education outcomes. Of particular concern is the low ranking in critical subjects such as maths and science.

More than three-quarters of children attending grade 4 cannot read for meaning, which acts as drag throughout the rest of their schooling. So while on average children can expect to complete 9.3 years of pre-primary and basic education before age 18, this is only equivalent to 5.1 years when adjusted for the quality of learning. For every 100 pupils entering grade 1, 50-60 will reach grade 12, 40-50 will pass grade 12, and only 14 will go on to attend university.

It was stated in a 2020 Amnesty International report on SA’s education system (2020) that 4,358 schools have only illegal pit latrines for sanitation, 239 have no electricity, and 37 have no sanitation facilities at all. Like society, the inequality gap in education perpetuates the problem. Children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in mathematics than children in the next 6,600 schools combined.

Standout example

As SA is doing well regarding expenditure, but terribly when it comes to value for money, even throwing more money at the system will not fix key structural problems.

Reforming education systems is hard. There are entrenched vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Results also take years to show up. However, the solutions to fixing the education system are not a mystery. Finland has been the standout example. Once poorly ranked, with a heavy bureaucratic system that produced low-quality education and large inequalities, it now tops many of these indices. 

The Finns did the following key things, including: 

  • investing heavily in teacher training, with rigorous evaluation of standards;
  • undertaking a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment systems and developing a “thinking curriculum”; and
  • developing high degrees of decentralised autonomy for schools. 

In recent years Ceará, one of the poorest states in Brazil, rapidly raised basic literacy standards by following the Finnish approach. The plan pushed foundational learning, a focused curriculum aligned with teacher guides and learning materials that provided a clear routine for classes and accountable school management and school assessments to monitor learning. Financial incentives cutting across these strategies was the secret sauce.

The disruptive nature of the Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to reimagine education in this country. While virtual classes on personal tablets may be the norm in richer countries, here, with only 54% internet connectivity, it is no panacea but can be part of the solution. Digital learning hubs could be established where connectivity is good, and used for purposes such as improving the quality of teacher training and evaluating standards (and capturing critical data to measure progress). Online education programmes could be downloaded to be shown in classrooms, facilitated by teachers.

School curriculums should have a greater emphasis on teamwork, leadership and critical thinking rather than rote learning. Pupils also need to gain exposure to the issues that actually affect their lives, such as projects that are located within the community experience and address current needs such as recycling, renewable energy or water scarcity. 

Arguably this is the most important challenge facing SA, as the quality of schooling is a powerful indicator of the wealth a country will produce in the long run. The economic output that is lost because of poor education policies and practices is huge.

It will require bold ideas and significant political capital, but these can be garnered by mobilising the country’s largest vested interest group — parents.

It will also cost, but as a colleague once remarked to me, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

• Rynhart is senior specialist in employers’ activities with the International Labour Organisation, based in SA. He is author of ‘Colouring the Future: Why the UN Plan to End Poverty and Wars Is Working’.


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