Report portrays ‘a tragic picture’ of SA’s education system

By the age of eight, children from the poorest 80% of households in South Africa are already far behind the school performance of the richest 20%.

“This disadvantage remains throughout their years of education and stays with them when they enter the labour market,” say the University of Stellenbosch researchers who released their findings on Monday.

This startling finding is one of several that 12 researchers in Stellenbosch’s economics department use to reach the conclusion that, 17 years into democracy, South Africa’s education system still “generally fails to produce outcomes to help eradicate inequalities”.

Entitled “Low Quality Education As a Poverty Trap”, the research draws on both published and unpublished data that, “seen as a whole, present a very shocking picture of the state of the South African education system”, Ronelle Burger, one of the 12 researchers, told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday.

“Some of what our report finds has been said before, some is brand new,” said Burger. “Put together, a very vivid and very tragic picture of our education system emerges.”

‘Reinforcing current patterns of poverty and privilege’
Observing that schooling “generally … reinforce[s] current patterns of poverty and privilege instead of challenging them”, the report makes links between these and inequities in employment that pure education research normally does not consider.

In particular, affirmative action in the labour market is likely to be limited by itself in addressing inequalities of opportunity and income, the report suggests.

“Policies that address inequality by intervening in the labour market will have limited success as long as the considerable pre-labour market inequalities in the form of differential school quality persist,” the report says.

“Affirmative-action measures … do not tackle the root cause of the inequality problem,” the researchers said on Monday in a statement that introduces the report.

This is because “what we perceive to be labour-market discrimination is actually caused by a lack of sufficient, quality education on the part of poor, black children”, the researchers said. “Effective pro-poor policies should be targeted at [the] specific causes of under-performance in the poor parts of the education system.”


Drawing on datasets including household surveys and internationally comparative studies of literacy and numeracy levels at schools, the report draws stark links between poverty and under-achievement.

For instance, South Africa ranks 10th out of the 15 sub-Saharan African countries tested for reading among grade six learners and eighth out of 15 for maths performance in the same grade. This is despite South Africa’s relatively higher state expenditure on education and better teacher/learner ratios across the region.

‘Largely ineffective’
That data is to be found in the so-called “SAQMEQ III” — the project conducted in 2007 by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality.

The same study showed that the average reading test score for the richest 20% of learners in grade six was much higher than the score for the poorest 20% of learners. A similar discrepancy was found in maths scores.

“South Africa’s rural children did far worse than rural children in most other countries in this African sample,” the report says, “as did the poorest quarter of South African students in comparison with the other countries in the sample.”

It follows that “pro-poor reforms to the education system [in South Africa] appear largely ineffective”, the report concludes.

“We feel it is important this research reaches a broad audience and can feed into the public debate on the reform of the education system,” Burger said.

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David Macfarlane
Guest Author
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