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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

About 2,000 years ago Stoic philosopher Seneca was tutoring a Roman emperor and offered him the following advice: “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable.”

The lesson here concerns the importance of planning and having a goal to know where you’re going. Unfortunately, when it comes to early grade reading in SA we are a ship at sea without a port in sight or plan in hand.  

On Tuesday we learnt that in 2021 81% of SA grade 4s couldn’t read a few simple paragraphs in their home language and answer basic literal questions. This is according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), a grade 4 test that was administered in all 11 languages in SA.

It’s not as if this was just a pandemic thing — the SA illiteracy rate in the last Pirls (2016) was 78%. This high rate of grade 4 illiteracy is unique to SA, at least among middle-income countries. The latest survey showed far lower rates in countries such as Egypt (55%), Jordan (53%) and Brazil (49%), all of which wrote the same test, at the same time, in their own languages.

Another shocking finding was that grade 4s in SA were three years behind grade 4s in Brazil, a country we like to compare ourselves to, perhaps optimistically. Brazil is an interesting case. Under former president Jair Bolsonaro the education budget was slashed, and he scrapped a successful national literacy programme.

When Lula da Silva was re-elected president earlier in 2023, his first move was to reverse the budget cuts in education and appoint Camilo Santana as education minister. Santana was the governor of Ceará, one of the poorest states in Brazil, but also the fastest-improving state on reading outcomes over the past 20 years. Ceará moved from poverty pariah to poster child, with countries now sending delegations to understand how they managed to get 84% of grade 3s reading for meaning.

Just two decades before, 40% of grade 3s in the state couldn’t read a single word. Going further, three months ago Lula created a new presidential secretariat dedicated specifically to books and literacy. For us in SA this is a parable of what’s possible with a president who follows words with actions, and who appoints ministers who are relentless about well-defined goals. 

You will recall that in 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his state of the nation address that early grade reading was one of his administration’s "top five priorities" and that “within the next 10 years … every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning”.

This was then codified in the medium-term strategic framework as one of “five fundamental goals”, alongside halving violent crime, increasing employment, eliminating hunger and promoting economic growth. But a goal is not a plan. Four years on from those lofty words, where are we on reading?

There is still no national reading plan, and if anything things have got worse. We have no plan to retrain our teachers, eliminate extreme class sizes, or resource classrooms with the specific books and tools teachers need to teach reading (graded readers, story books, alphabet friezes, etc). Instead, we have a patchwork document that saw the light of day only in May, and then only in response to Carte Blanche’s Promotion of Access to Information Act request.

We have no plan to retrain our teachers, eliminate extreme class sizes, or resource classrooms with the specific books and tools teachers need to teach reading.

This shambolic document is a laundry list of 47 activities. There are a few good ideas, but most are random fluff, including my favourite: “Partnerships with big business to include reading materials in food packages (eg ‘Did you know?’ messages in Chappies).” You can’t make this stuff up.

The plan lists targets for each year from 2019-2024, none of which has been reached. This Reworked National Reading Sector Implementation Plan 2019-2024 was released (under duress) only  in May 2023, a year before it will expire. 

A credible plan comes with credible milestones, a credible budget, a credible team and accountable reporting to political superiors. We have none of those things. Much of the department of basic education’s work on reading is outsourced to the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), a quasi-governmental project management office reporting to the director-general and minister. In part this is because the department itself is too slow or unable to execute the wishes of the minister.

The NECT has some good people working for it, but is under-capacitated and under-budgeted for the mandate it seems to have acquired. You cannot retrain 120,000 grade R to grade 3 teachers with a R37m budget, or even a R370m budget for that matter. To provide a sense of scale, we are spending R294bn on basic education in 2023, about 5% of GDP.

One province by itself, the Western Cape, is spending R400m in 2023 on Covid catch-up alone. The NECT, by contrast, is tasked with doing everything under the sun, including technology, maths, science, matric, reading, primary schools, high schools and Covid catch-up. 

Coming back to our stoic philosopher, it would seem as if the department has reframed the quote to be more palatable: “If a man knows not what harbour he seeks, any wind is favourable.” So, any activities, big or small, we’re here for you. Chappies partnerships, working with 150 schools here, 1,000 school libraries there, mobilising “Read to Lead” and encouraging teachers to “Drop all And Read”.

The problem with all this chatter is that it lacks prioritisation, it lacks accountability and it lacks budget. The presidency has been loath to hold ministers accountable for tangible, objectively verifiable progress towards a limited number of goals.  

We should heed the advice of history. That emperor was Nero, and he ignored Seneca’s advice. In fact, Nero forced him to commit suicide and went on to kill his own mother before burning the city of Rome. It’s where we get the expression “Fiddling while Rome burns”.

This feels especially apt when looking at the mess of 81% of grade 4s being unable to read for meaning, with no plan and no political will to get us out of it. And so, all I can say is: where’s the plan, minister Motshekga? And President Ramaphosa, are you a man of action like Lula, or does your word mean nothing?  

• Spaull is an associate professor of economics at Stellenbosch University and a member of the secretariat of the 2030 Reading Panel. 

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