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Picture: 123RF/ARROWSMITH2
Picture: 123RF/ARROWSMITH2

The fate of a nation depends on the quality of its people; therefore education in SA ought to be the highest national priority. Several studies show that the average level of cognitive skills of a country (as measured by a wide variety of internationally administered standardised cognitive and academic tests) is by far the strongest and most robust predictor of its long-term economic growth.

Other measures of education, such as spending or enrolment, are poor predictors of growth. Mere time spent in school, or spending more, will not raise growth rates unless it results in real cognitive skills development. 

Another strong and reliable trend is that poor countries have grown faster than rich countries over recent generations, but that isn’t a fact informing useful action. There are a few weaker and less reliable predictors, but these mainly involve being lucky enough to live in the right places, such as being close to the sea, or having many resources.

Due to substandard education, the average cognitive skill level of SA lags behind that of its poorer neighbouring countries. It’s entirely realistic to believe SA could at least equal the current mental skill level of those neighbours, but considering that our neighbours themselves can improve that is by no means the upper limit.

If we were to improve to the current cognitive skill level to that of those neighbours we could expect the annual economic growth rate to increase by almost a percentage point. That increase in growth would leave South Africans twice as wealthy than currently expected after 71 years — that’s huge. 

Something like this happened after Marx and Engels noted how badly off English workers were; they expected this state to continue. Instead, in rather short order the working class gained the cognitive skills necessary to improve industrial productivity and their employment and wages rose dramatically, transforming their lives and prospects. This confirms studies showing that increases in cognitive skills result in immediate jumps in living standards, as well as better long-term growth prospects.

To raise cognitive skills we need effective education. Students must verifiably acquire new skills every year, as opposed to merely spending time in school. If students don’t acquire skills at school it is a waste of everyone’s time and money to keep them there, and useless to pretend the resulting “qualifications” mean anything. 

Two factors make for effective education. Acquiring real skills depends on the demands and expectations placed on the students. Achieving a mere 30% on undemanding material is not mastery and does not result in a build-up of skills. Effective education requires high standards throughout.

Acquiring skills also depends on how well and thoroughly the material is explained. So, teachers need to understand the material and effective teaching methods to properly prepare their lessons, and they need to turn up to teach every day. They need to be committed, adequately qualified and paid, and both properly supported and disciplined.

The latter will probably require a Maggie Thatcher-like confrontation with teacher unions.

• Zietsman is a statistician who analyses and writes for the Free Market Foundation. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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