EDUCATION: Tablets won’t cure pupils’ problems
Some welcome common sense, but where’s the promised emphasis on basic childhood literacy?
Reading through the National Treasury’s meticulous budget documents, the contrast between the state of the nation (Sona) and the budget is very apparent.
Sona is the aspirational shopping list given by the president to the finance minister. The budget is what is actually in the trolley when the minister leaves the shop. The president can announce whatever he likes, but until it manifests in the budget, it remains in the collective dreamscape of the ANC.
So it should come as no surprise that this was not a Sona budget but an Eskom one. In a context of low growth and imminent catastrophe, there is only so much that can be done. If you can’t keep the lights on, nothing else matters anyway.
When it comes to basic education, this was a "business as usual" budget. Most of the headline-grabbing Sona pronouncements were conveniently left out. There was no mention of "one tablet per child" and nothing about two years of compulsory early childhood development.
That’s a relief. There is no evidence that either would be a good use of limited funds. The policy of providing every child with a digital tablet is widely considered foolish, having failed in every country — rich or poor — where it has been implemented.
Evaluations of Grade R implementation show that Grade R education in SA is of very poor quality.
Received wisdom is that the priority should be to raise standards before adding another feature of questionable value.
The Treasury has prioritised the eradication of pit latrines in 2,400 schools by allocating an extra R2.8bn over the next three years. These funds won’t be given to provinces to spend, perhaps because the more dysfunctional ones have failed to spend their school infrastructure funds in the past. Instead, the programme will be managed nationally by the department of basic education. This is a sign of the political times, with a strong-handed national approach rather than the traditional federalist, provincial implementation of policies.
While the least feasible (and most expensive) proposals from Sona were ignored, so too was one of the most important and potentially highest-impact ones: fixing early-grade reading. In his Sona speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that early-grade reading "is possibly the single most important factor in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality".
Finance minister Tito Mboweni does not necessarily agree, since no money is allocated to it. There is no mention of reading in the budget except for some lip service paid to an early-grade reading assessment, which is actually an existing initiative and receives less than R10m annually. This is a shame and represents yet another year that we kick the education can down the road.
The problem with a "business as usual" budget comes when "business as usual" isn’t working. The two most reliable international assessments in which SA takes part show slowing progress (in grade 9 mathematics between 2011 and 2015) or stagnation (in grade 4 reading between 2011 and 2016).
There are several possible reasons why results are so disappointing. A 13% surge in the number of SA births from 2003 to 2005 was not matched by a rise in education spending, so class sizes are growing.
According to the "Progress in International Reading Literacy Study" report, the average class size in SA primary schools has risen from 40 to 45. In no-fee primary schools, the number has grown from 41 to 48.
What we needed from this budget was recognition that SA’s long-term struggles, such as unemployment, inequality and low growth, cannot be addressed when 78% of grade 4 pupils cannot read for meaning in any language. Planners also need to understand that while reforming basic education is a long-term challenge, long-term solutions have to start somewhere.
I have considerable sympathy for Treasury officials who work tirelessly to make sure that the country is economically on track and deftly navigate the trade-offs, prioritisations and budget constraints that are the real politics of any democracy.
There is no doubt that neutralising the Eskom threat was the biggest challenge facing those who compiled this budget. Yet there will always be new, urgent challenges that are considered political dynamite. A couple of years ago it was #FeesMustFall. There will be others.
So while we should credit Mboweni and his Treasury officials for trying to steer us through the Eskom emergency, let’s hope that future finance ministers will be able to move away from crisis management and instead start laying the foundations for long-term progress.
• Nic Spaull is a senior researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University