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File photo: VELI NHLAPO
File photo: VELI NHLAPO

The tragedy of SA’s latest unemployment figures isn’t that our official unemployment rate stands at 35.3%, the highest since Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey started in 2008. Nor is it that we’ve become so numb to the figures that we scarcely react any more. By far the biggest tragedy is that right now young people are flooding into the world with such low levels of literacy and numeracy that their education and economic participation is in effect impeded for the rest of their lives.

It’s a tragedy that’s been years in the making, and one that will wash over our society for generations to come. And yet we’re still not doing enough to address the fundamental issue. We’ve got to do more to give our children the necessary levels of education and skills to make their way in the world.

Access to education isn’t just a basic human right. In SA it’s a ticket to employability and a meaningful future. Education is a key tool in the fight against our country’s triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation believes if all adults completed secondary education the number of poor people in the world could be reduced by more than half.

Four years ago, almost to the day, we launched Anglo American’s SA Education Programme in collaboration with the department of basic education. It had bold visions and goals. We aimed to provide wide-ranging and quality education for about 73,000 pupils. We wanted to support 2,300 teachers at 109 schools and 100 early childhood development sites (ECD) in communities around our mining operations. We wanted to improve the way schools are run, and dramatically improve pass rates.

Four years later more than 222,000 learners have indirectly benefited from the programme. We’ve supported 3,391 teachers at 109 schools, and 403 practitioners at 110 ECD sites. We’ve directly supported about 1,878 grade 12 pupils in maths and science at all project secondary schools, and the matric results of 2021 show that our efforts are having an effect. In addition, we have expanded our programme in 2022 by almost double, as we add a further 80 schools and 80 ECD centres.

Despite the enormous disruption caused by Covid-19 lockdowns and limited teaching, the results in both Mpumalanga and Northern Cape showed an increase above the provincial average of 6.7% and 4.7% respectively. In Limpopo, eight out of 32 schools were in the top 30% of national school performance, with five schools in the top 20%. 

In other words, we’re exceeding our reach and reaching our  targets, and together with our partners we’re giving thousands of young people a better chance at succeeding in life. And we’re learning valuable lessons along the way. For one, the schools that see the biggest improvements have strong leadership, good engagement levels with our programme and good attendance at the learner support sessions. What we have observed is that the schools and communities that care and commit see better outcomes.

Second, we’re seeing that to provide real employability and a meaningful future for our youth, simply getting children through matric isn’t enough. We’ve got to give them the skills they need to survive, and thrive, in the digital world we live in. That’s why we need to be aggressive in embedding information and communication technology (ICT) into our schools and curricula. This is absolutely critical for any form of economic participation after school. Young people who do not have access to devices, an internet connection and digital skills cannot participate in the digital economy. 

We’ve long known that the internet improves the quality of education in many ways. It opens doors to a wealth of information, knowledge and educational resources, increasing opportunities for learning in and beyond the classroom. Scholars who are comfortable using everyday technology and devices to access content and to self-learn are far better positioned to make a life outside school.

That is why we are investing tens of millions of rand on ICT initiatives that range from providing ICT infrastructure, data, connectivity, devices for leaning in the classroom, devices for teachers, ICT training, ICT learnerships and sprints and content platforms. The problem is precious few of the country’s schools have access to the devices, skills and bandwidth needed to provide any form of ICT education. Most rural and township schools have limited to no internet connectivity, which is critical for modern education and school administration.

But you can’t just provide a room full of devices and think everything will change. We need all the elements to come together. We must take our teachers with us on the journey, provide relevant content, ensure the devices and bandwidth are in place, and give learners the entrepreneurial skills they need to start creating their own small businesses after school.

The bottom line is that our work is not going to be done any time soon. We’ve already extended Anglo American’s education programme into a second phase. But as a nation we are going to have to do far more if we’re going to give our kids a future.

• Soomar is global lead for education and community skills programmes at Anglo American.

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