The critical nature of education is reflected in the numerous debates and high media profile around the current situation and potential futures.
Information from Census 2011 offers a picture of the current trends, providing a base from which to plan the way ahead.The census provides some good news about education in South Africa.
Kefiloe Masiteng, deputy director general of population and social statistics at Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), says that it has become clear that South Africa is approaching the universal education standard for enrolment into school: "Ninety-seven percent of children aged six and seven are being enrolled in schools. This is pretty close to the millennium development goals standard of 100%."
Another important trend is in levels of education, known in statistical terms as "educational attainment".
Focusing on the ages of 20 and above, almost 35% of people have some secondary education and about 12% have attained higher (post-school) education.
"Among those that have attained higher education is a muted skills base for a knowledge economy," says Masiteng.
The national drive for South Africa to be more competitive in a global environment depends partly on the extent of a shift towards an information society.
Levels of higher education also reflect people's chances of entering the labour market.
Looking at the levels of higher education represented according to ethnicity, the coloured population has the highest level of incomplete secondary schooling, followed by the black population.
Masiteng notes that, if this trend continues for these population groups, their chances of getting into the labour market will be minimised even more.
A larger proportion of people (aged 20 and above) who have passed matric is in the group aged 35 to 44. Considered the core of the labour market, this group stands a higher chance of gaining employment, Masiteng says.
The school drop-out rate reflects another pattern. "Although the ages from six to 14 are close to the millennium development goals's universal education enrolment standard, when children are over the age of 14 the percentage rapidly drops."
By age 18, the school drop-out rate is 65%. Masiteng says possible reasons for this include pregnancy, financial challenges and "situations where young people become caregivers to ill household members" and there- fore reflect some of the issues facing the education sector.
The yearly general household survey, another Stats SA instrument, contains questions about the reasons for drop-out rates. Because the household survey has been conducted for over 10 years, Masiteng says that causality trends can be identified. The response that dominates reasons for leaving school is a lack of money.
Drop-out rates remain a priority concern, but on the flip side the level of schooling has improved. Between the 1996 and 2011 censuses, the number of people who have had no schooling has declined from 19.1% to 9% of the population.
These education statistics impact on living standards and the labour market.
Masiteng says people who have dropped out of school will be marginalised and left out of the labour market, and that throughput to the labour market will be compromised to the point that skills supply will not meet demand.
Education statistics information is used in planning and decision-making around school numbers, the location of schools and associated infrastructure, among others.
It also assists with planning teacher numbers and teacher-learner ratios. "Once there is an understanding around the status of levels of education, the educational sector can review policies and move forward," says Masiteng.
Insights into the knowledge base are reinforced by other sources of statistics, such as population count.
This provides a measure of size within catchment areas for children of school-going age as well as for those who go to school, and migration statistics that impact on resource allocation, among other things. Of note is that stakeholders have requested information on the quality of education in the next census.
This article was supplied and approved by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. It forms part of a larger supplement.