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Picture: Franco Megannon
Picture: Franco Megannon

The significant public resources SA allocates to basic and higher education (estimated at R410bn in 2021/2022 or 6.6% of GDP) results in educational outcomes that are especially poor. Unfortunately, postapartheid gains in expanding access and achieving near-universal primary-school enrolment rates has not translated into commensurate performance gains.

While SA’s achievement in recent international mathematics, science and literacy tests highlights progress relative to previous years in absolute terms, the results remain a cause for concern. Out of a total of 64 countries participating in the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), SA ranked third last in both grade 5 mathematics and science. The grade 9 mathematics results show a similar lacklustre level of performance, with SA coming second last out of the 39 countries participating, and last in respect of science.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), last carried out in 2016, showed SA ranking 50th (out of 50 participating countries) in the assessment of grade 4 reading comprehension. These results indicate that well over half of grade 4 pupils in SA cannot understand what they are reading. We will have to wait until the end of this year, when the results of the 2021 Pirls is set to be released, to gauge the extent to which matters have improved since 2016.

No doubt the effects of the Covid-19-induced lockdown, which resulted in a significant loss of learning time, will make attempts at improving educational outcomes even more challenging. Based on annual performance plans and other reports, the basic-education sector is gearing itself to address this challenge — there’s the Read to Lead Campaign, the Primary School Reading Improvement Programme, the Reading Support Project as well as a pilot programme aimed at Teaching Mathematics for Understanding.

The role of socioeconomic aspects

The case of education is complex, though, with improvements in outcomes requiring far more than just resources and education-sector-based interventions — these are a necessary start, but are not sufficient to engender enhancements in performance, especially from poor and vulnerable households. With many government services (for example, the provision of electricity, water or public transport), there is a relatively neat, almost linear relationship between what is required to fulfil a need and associated improvements in outcomes.

In respect of education, outcomes are dependent on myriad factors. Some of these are within the control of the education sector, such as decisions over class size, physical inputs such as classrooms, pupil-teacher support materials and human capital inputs, which encompass principals, teachers or school psychologists. But it does not end there — educational performance is also influenced by an array of non-school factors the education sector has no control over. These include gender, race, the education level of a pupil’s parents, private household resources, access to transport, linguistic barriers and a host of other socioeconomic aspects characterising the environment in which a pupil lives.

As a result of this, when it comes to education, the concepts of complementary public services and a whole-of-government approach are critical. Take a school in Manenberg, Cape Town, for example. The department of basic education could ensure that all posts are filled with highly qualified teachers and that all schools have sufficient and appropriate classrooms and access to textbooks.

On the home front, parents could be doing their bit, assisting their children with homework, reading to them daily and providing a stable home environment. But the almost daily trauma exacted by gang violence and having to hide under school desks to avoid being hit by stray bullets would unnerve even the most diligent of pupils and passionate of teachers. Imagine the trauma of your child, your brother, your classmate drowning in a pit latrine and knowing that in some schools, pit latrines remain the only form of sanitation.

Unless we recognise the fundamental importance of taking a holistic, truly integrated, child-centric approach to the provision of education, outcomes are likely to remain sub-optimal.

Why must pupils in some villages cross rivers to get to school? Do our children really need to risk their lives just to access their right to an education? Given some of these challenges, it is hardly surprising that about 40% of grade 1 pupils drop out before completing matric.

Considering the above, it’s not logical or fair to expect the department of basic education and its nine provincial counterparts to be solely responsible for the number of pupils who pass matric, go on to further studies and are fortunate enough to lead functional lives, contributing to society and building a better SA. It’s not possible or even remotely feasible to place such a mammoth task at the door of a single department.

We need a whole-of-government approach, minus the lip service, with action instead of rhetoric. We need job creation to provide avenues for earning an income other than relying on the proceeds of crime, and we need social welfare services that take a proactive approach to identifying families, communities and children at risk and then doing something proactive about mitigating that risk.

We need infrastructure-related departments to play their role in creating liveable environments. The departments in charge of public works, water & sanitation, transport and municipalities need to be front and centre, along with basic education, in ensuring our children have functional classrooms, age-appropriate toilets, clean water and safe scholar transport. Unless such an approach is taken, Section 27 of the constitution is set to remain a serially unfulfilled promise.

The point of the above is not to suggest that the department of basic education and its provincial counterparts be absolved from all responsibility, but it is an attempt to broaden the lens through which we view educational performance. Unless we recognise the fundamental importance of taking a holistic, truly integrated, child-centric approach to the provision of education, outcomes are likely to remain suboptimal and we will continue to fall short of reaping the full gamut of personal, societal and economic benefits that can be derived from ensuring our children have access to quality basic education.

• Peters is a programme manager at the Financial & Fiscal Commission. She writes in her personal capacity.


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