/ 26 July 2010

Still on the back burner?

Education, primarily school and higher level, is a national priority, owed in part to historical educational and social inequalities in South Africa.

But adult education and literacy tend to be on the back burner. One telling symptom is the lack of accurate statistics on adult basic education and training (Abet). But, without knowing the extent of the problem, the government must surely find it difficult to allocate appropriate resources.

So, despite a number of government and private interventions since 1994, there is no comprehensive record of achievements to date. How then do we measure progress?

It is estimated that between three million and five million adults are illiterate. This figure includes two groups: illiterate adults (those with no prior schooling) and semi-literate adults (with some schooling). And this estimation does not distinguish between employed and unemployed adults.

Through the national skills levy, sector education and training authorities (Setas) facilitate access to adult education programmes for both employed and unemployed adults. Although gains have been
made through the Seta Abet interventions, the 20% of the national skills fund allocated to the unemployed is driven by community projects.

Typically, these community projects tend to be overburdened because they have other critical needs as well, such as poverty alleviation and HIV/Aids programmes, that send Abet to the back of the bus.

There are at least five illiteracy-linked, socioeconomic costs, according to a 2006 research report by the KPMG Foundation in the United Kingdom, The Long-Term Costs of Literacy Difficulties:

  • Crime;
  • Health;
  • Educational costs deriving from special needs support;
  • Educational costs involving exclusions; and
  • Unemployment and low wages.

So which part of the government should be most concerned about adult education and literacy? If illiteracy adds to crime, ill health, special educational interventions and social support for the unemployed and those living below the poverty line, surely it should be a national priority on a par with, dare I say, HIV/Aids?

As many Setas and private companies have found, you cannot successfully introduce skills development programmes if people are not literate or semi-literate.

Abet provides the essential fundamentals for further education and training (FET). And, as we know, education is the key factor that enables people to access FET and hence employment –and often better-paid employment.

Although the recession has slashed training budgets while companies and the public sector do their best to retain jobs, it is short-sighted to abandon training completely.

Roger Baxter, chief economist for the Chamber of Mines, warned in a presentation to the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa in May last year that “there needs to be a strong emphasis on increasing training budgets for technical skills” as the mining industry moves up the skills curve.

As our economy increasingly becomes knowledge-based, countries such as Singapore can show us how we can invest optimally in education and training. Singapore’s main export is its human capital: we need to recognise that this is a long-term investment but one with high rewards.

Better-educated workers’ skills can be improved steadily. The high dropout rate common in adult-learning programmes should be tackled rather than used as an excuse to ignore adult education.

As we deal with current adult learners, a new profile of Abet learners is emerging: more and more schoolleavers are joining Abet programmes to improve their English literacy and computer skills. We know that many of our country’s social ills can be addressed through Abet: its matching of education with job creation enables individuals, families and communities to
attain a better quality of life.

So, too, the life skills gained by adult learners are truly life-changing for those who previously could not read their own correspondence, decipher safety messages in their workplaces or read road signs in their neighbourhoods.Such a personal achievement, we have found, has a ripple effect in our communities and economy if similar interventions are effectively linked with community development programmes.

As we enter a new era in our country’s history, the gains made during the past 20 years in adult education should not be allowed to slide. We are encouraged by government’s largest investment to date in adult literacy — the Kha Ri Gude (Let Us Learn) literacy campaign — but we anxiously await clarification from the new department of higher education and training on the status it will accord Abet: Is it a departmental priority?

We hope the consolidation of skills training within this new department will benefit adult education, but we must make sure that Abet does not fall into the cracks between basic education and higher education.

Abet must be declared a national priority so that the necessary budget allocations can be made to help those who need help to help themselves.

Jackie Carroll is the founder and managing director of Media Works, an established and accredited training solutions provider that specialises in developing and providing NQF-aligned training for both Abet and learnerships