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20 Sep 2012 00:00
Schoolchildren in the audience at the Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking forum on education. (Lisa Skinner)
In 1983, the United States released a paper titled "A Nation at Risk", which warned that for the US to "keep and improve on the slim competitive edge it still retained in world markets, it must dedicate itself to the reform of the education system for the benefit of all — old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority."
The warning stemmed from a study that tracked several countries over a number of years and showed that countries that had invested in advanced levels of cognitive skills, such as maths and science, have greater potential to become future economic powerhouses. In other words, a nation's thinking skills have a direct influence on its global competitiveness and economic growth.
In the latest Global Competitive-ness Report, South Africa was ranked 138 out of 142 countries in the quality of maths and science education.
The enormity and urgency of the task facing us is glaringly clear from this and from recent headlines about slow textbook deliveries, poor infrastructure and the huge service delivery (and other) backlogs that have their origins in South Africa's ugly past.
A serious consequence of poor education is that it in effect sentences thousands of young people to a cycle of generational poverty.
For example, one study found that 80% of grade five learners were at serious risk of not learning to read.
Black pupils in rural areas suffer most, as they always have, from the lack of quality education. The schools that are worst affected are in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. Many are handicapped by lack of infrastructure, vandalism, lack of education material, poor leadership and lack of support from stressed-out communities and struggling parents. What's more, as Professor Gerrit Kamper of Unisa points out, "Learners are often hungry and ill, do not have proper clothing, lack study facilities, self-esteem and language proficiency, and move frequently from school to school."
Despite their vital importance, maths and science have the lowest pass rates: one in six learners who wrote grade 12 last year scored less than 10% and more than half scored less than 30% in science. South Africa's grade eight maths and science- education is rated lowest among 50 countries surveyed by the Trends International Mathematics and Science Study.
This translates directly into South Africa's unemployment rate, which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts at 23.9%, compared with Brazil's 4.7%, China's 4.1% Russia's 6.4% and India's 9.8%.
These alarming statistics underscore the urgency of intervention and are the reason why Old Mutual actively supports education initiatives and salutes other efforts.
One success story that offers hope — and also a model that can be replicated — is the Leap Science and Maths Schools, which consist of six independent schools in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Limpopo.
Leap aims to transform educationally disadvantaged communities in South Africa through maths and science-focused learning within a values-based environment that enables each learner to develop fully as a human being.
The Old Mutual Foundation has, among other projects, invested R14.7-million in Leap schools over the years. Since opening in 2004, Leap has achieved a remarkable 95% grade 12 pass rate.
In recent months, Old Mutual Investment Group SA joined forces with Curro Holdings, the JSE-listed private schooling company, and the Public Investment Corporation to provide a major boost to affordable independent schooling in South Africa.
The partnership, called Meridian Independent Schools, aims to deliver quality low-fee education to an initial 20 000 learners across 11 schools nationwide. These schools are broadly aimed at making private education more accessible and affordable for working-class families, because the state cannot reasonably be expected to do it alone. We all have a part to play, even the very disadvantaged whose triumphs inspire the growing effort to find lasting solutions.
To get us out of this crisis we need not only better schools, but also tertiary institutions that are better geared towards producing work-ready graduates.
And now, more than ever, we need business, government and civil society to work together. Dialogues such as the Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum are a vital step towards actively addressing what is one of the greatest threats to our nation's social and economic development: lack of proper education.
By fixing education we can do great things: we can create jobs and help to eradicate the poverty and inequality that get in the way of constitutionally promised freedoms. We can change South Africa's future.
Mohale Ralebitso is the director for marketing, communication and corporate- affairs at Old Mutual Emerging Markets
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