Govt's whoppers on adult literacy

The national government has been accused of misleading the public over a 10-year period about its progress in combating adult illiteracy.

The astonishing litany of misrepresentation is set out in a paper by University of KwaZulu-Natal academics Professor John Aitchison and Anne Harley. This says “misleading claims about [adult education] provision have indeed become endemic” and the Department of Education has often been guilty of “deliberate misinformation”.

“Mendacious” and “preposterous” figures “are now routinely bandied about by officials and inserted into the Minister of Education’s speeches to portray the national Department of Education’s Abet [adult basic education and training] work in a good light”, say Aitchison and Harley.

They add that the education department paints “a rosy picture” while ignoring independent research and a 1999 Human Sciences Research Council study the department itself commissioned.

The two academics’ indictment follows a warning earlier this month by KwaZulu-Natal Premier S’bu Ndebele that the province should declare “a state of emergency” over illiteracy. It is conservatively estimated that 22% of adults in the province have little or no formal schooling, leaving 1,7-million illiterate.

Ndebele was launching KwaZulu-Natal’s Year of Adult Literacy, which formed the basis of a two-day imbizo in Durban on March 7 and 8 convened by the province’s department of education. More than 300 government officials, NGO practitioners in Abet and academic experts attended.

Asked to comment on Aitchison and Harley’s claims, the Department of Education this week denied any campaign of “deliberate misinformation”: “There is no red under every bed. There is no conspiracy.” It added that “dealing with statistical data of an education system as large as ours is no easy task”.

Education Deputy Director General Cassius Lubisi conceded that specific official figures the Mail & Guardian queried could be wrong.

“Expenditure on Abet is lower than we would want it to be,” Lubisi also said. “Efforts to remedy this situation continue.” The M&G reported in July 2001 that more than a third of South Africans of 16 years and older are illiterate. Nearly eight million are functionally illiterate — they cannot, for example, fill out an application for a bank account. The M&G reported in March 2003 that there had been no significant progress in adult literacy since apartheid ended. Abet experts complain that government budgeting to fight illiteracy remains paltry.

A wide range of delegates in Durban told the same story: 10 years of democracy have done little or nothing to reduce adult illiteracy. They also said the national department had been lying for years in official documents and speeches about the number of adults enrolled in Abet courses.

They question the department’s repeated claim that it has reached 1,6-million people through adult literacy programmes since 1999 — a figure that found its way into the Treasury’s Estimates of National Expenditure last year. Provincial education departments use central government money to fund adult learning programmes.

Lubisi admitted that the figure is dubious, saying it “refers to more than just literacy”. He said the 2003 survey, commissioned by the department, that produced this figure “was not satisfactory”.

Other departmental figures are again under fire. A 2001 departmental document — Building an Abet System — claimed that there were 85 219 Abet trainers.

The M&G suggested this figure could be arrived at only if the department was counting the same trainers more than once. Lubisi said this could indeed have happened.

The education sector education and training authority’s 2002 annual report gave a figure of only 10 848 staff employed in public Abet. Lubisi responded: “The concern in this question is noted ... It would be safe to question the [department’s]

data source or survey method to ascertain how close to reality” official figures are.

The department launched the South African National Literacy Initiative (Sanli) in June 2000, and in March last year then-education minister Kader Asmal claimed that “departmental literacy projects have reached nearly two million learners”.

Lubisi conceded that Sanli “has not reached two million adults”. Asmal’s comment “needs to be viewed in the context of this being one of minister Asmal’s last speeches as minister of education. The reference to literacy, in this instance, should not be limited solely to the Sanli programme”: it “needs to be seen to refer to the number of learners reached in both the Abet and Sanli programmes during [Asmal’s] term of office”.

Experts have repeatedly criticised the department for underfunding Sanli. Lubisi said its budget for 2005/06 is R10-million, R10-million for 2006/07, and R11-million for 2007/08. In all three years, 70% of the budget will be spent on personnel.

Lubisi said his department had been “pressed to report in real time on the basis of provisional uncleaned data, when our information systems lag behind by over two years, a problem we are currently addressing”.

‘All will be ready by 2008’

“Eliminate adult illiteracy in KwaZulu-Natal by March 7 2008.” That was the instruction from Premier S’bu Ndebele, provincial education minister Ina Cronje

and Durban mayor Obed Mlaba. They were launching the province’s Year of Adult Literacy on March 7 this year — and their language was direct.

Ndebele said Namibia, Swaziland and Botswana have all done better than South Africa in tackling adult illiteracy. “Those countries have entire populations — and South Africa could fill all of them merely from its own illiterate citizens.”

Latest statistics show that more than 40% of the adult population is illiterate, Mlaba observed. “That’s scary ... The Freedom Charter says the doors of learning shall be opened, but opened to all, not the old or the young, men or women, but to all.”

Mlaba said education should be informed by the people for whom it is designed “plus the needs of the country”. He drew loud applause when he went on: “Every square inch of South Africa falls under municipalities, so they [national government] can’t just plan up there,” he said, gesturing skywards. “At some point they must come down here.”

Cronje said the Durban metro had played its part by arranging for the free use of the Greyville race course for her education department’s two-day imbizo.

Cronje was in no mood for compromise. When one of her officials suggested at the imbizo’s closing session that by March 7 2008 “illiteracy in KwaZulu-Natal would be alleviated”, she interrupted: “No, not alleviated — eliminated.”

A ministerial task team now has two weeks in which to present Cronje with a three-year programme of action involving the key players — the government, business, academics and NGOs — together with a business plan. Action will be immediate, she said.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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