Poor education outcomes are the surest indicator that instead of making progress over the next 20 years as a society we risk making none at all or even regressing. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN
Poor education outcomes are the surest indicator that instead of making progress over the next 20 years as a society we risk making none at all or even regressing. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN

That eight out of 10 grade 4 children in SA are unable to read with understanding and comprehension — a key finding of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) published on Tuesday — is alarming and depressing.

While it is acknowledged that SA has deep structural economic and social problems, the basic fact that 80% of children will not succeed at school because to learn they first must be able to read, underlines how deep SA’s developmental difficulties are and that these will continue to haunt us far into the future. Poor education outcomes are the surest indicator that instead of making progress over the next 20 years as a society, as we might hope, we risk making none at all or even regressing.

SA is already way behind the rest of the world. While 78% of grade 4s in SA can’t read, the comparable figures in the US and the UK are 4% and 3%. SA was last in reading among the 50 countries surveyed, which included mainly higher-income countries but also middle-income ones such as Chile, where 13% of grade 4s could not read and Iran, where the figure was 35%.

Whereas SA’s test results over the past five years were about the same for girls, the scores for boys declined significantly. Test scores were also weaker at the top end of the scale, meaning that SA’s good schools are not quite as good as they used to be.

Fewer students in SA reached high levels of reading achievement: in 2011 3% of grade 4 students reached the High International Benchmark; in 2016 the figure was only 2%.

In responding to the results of the study, the Department of Basic Education made the obvious and important point that if we were to change the system, it was in the foundation phase (grades R to 3) that the most significant effect would be achieved in the long term. Instead of focusing on the exit point of matric (or obsessing over more funding for higher education, the preoccupation of the Presidency) more effort needed to be put into the foundation phase and into basic reading and writing.

The problem with this statement is that it is not new. Ten years ago, Wits professor Brahm Fleish published a groundbreaking study in which the extent of failure in the early years of primary school was revealed. Since then, government policy has shifted focus primarily to the foundation phase with a range of new policies and resources.

The Pirls study, which is done every five years, showed that some improvement occurred between 2006 and 2011. Across the country, workbooks were produced for the foundation phase and distributed to all schools. Annual tests for grade 3s were introduced to focus on the learning outcomes to be achieved.

But between 2011 and 2016 things stagnated and there was no evidence of improvement over this period. Why?

Several studies have shown that even in the first few years of school, a vast number of teachers lack all three aspects of teaching: knowledge of the subject, the curriculum, and how to teach the subject

In education, the critical difference is always the teacher. While departmental initiatives have done much to support teachers and give them the materials they need, they have been unable effectively to change their behaviour.

South African schools, says the department, don’t spend any less time on the teaching and learning of reading. The problem is that in the early grades, there is still much emphasis on whole-class chorusing and learning through rote repetition, it says.

As teachers were poorly taught themselves, they tend to stick to low-level cognitive tasks. They themselves are unaccustomed to a critical approach to written text and are unable to impart it.

Several studies have shown that even in the first few years of school, a vast number of teachers lack all three aspects of teaching: knowledge of the subject, the curriculum, and how to teach the subject. But the education department has always drawn the line at sifting out teachers on the basis of competence. Unions say that testing would be unfair on black teachers, who given their own education, are at an obvious disadvantage.

This is certainly true and so a fair solution for these teachers can and must be found because right now the weight of injustice falls squarely on the black child.

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