In the 2012/13 financial year, the South African government will spend R207-billion on education, making it the largest single- social services expenditure item for the year. According to the government's medium-term budget estimates, this education expenditure is expected to rise to around R223-billion in 2013/14 and then to R236-billion by the time we reach the 2014/15 financial year.
These are significant annual investments. And rightly so. Education is the foundation on which our country's future will be built and needs to remain a priority — not just for the government, but also for all South Africans.
The government's recognition of this fact has prompted far-reaching education reforms since 1994. Many of these have been focused on ensuring that more South Africans have access to the education they rightfully deserve.
According to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, the success of these reforms has meant that 96% of South African children now have access to schooling. This is a significant achievement and has prompted government to shift its focus, for the coming years, towards improving the quality of education to which our nation's young people have access.
Although quality of education is undoubtedly a priority, there is still much work that needs to be done in terms of improving access to education for all our country's young people. That's because access to education extends far beyond merely making sure that children have schools to go to.
Rather, true access to education will only be realised when that education experience becomes truly transformative. This implies an inextricable link between education access and quality, but it also goes further. The education our youth can access must involve more than mere learning. It must translate into the realisation of potential. It must be targeted, relevant, appropriate, and have the proven ability to change the life of every learner who is exposed to it. Put another way, we have a nation full of young people who are eager to learn, 14-million of them at last count. Now it is up to all of us to ensure that the learning to which they have access will change their lives for the better, and move our entire country forward in the process.
The point is that just ensuring that learners have learning facilities to go to will not make them all want to keep on learning. This fact is borne out by government figures that reveal that although South Africa now enjoys gross enrolment ratio of 98% for grades one to seven, this drops to just over 90% for secondary school.
Of these high-schoolers who reach grade 12, around 70% actually pass matric. While this is an improvement over previous years, it is clearly still not a satisfactory figure. And much of the blame for declining school attendance in higher grades, as well as lower than hoped for matric pass rates, is directly linked to the education to which these learners have access.
For starters, the physical school environment is still very much below minimum standards for many learners. Many schools are without toilets, electricity, desks and learning materials. It should be questioned whether or not the children attending these schools truly have access to education.
Poor nutrition is another stumbling block for our country's learners. Can a child who goes to school hungry truly be said to have access to the education he or she needs?
Then there are the ongoing issues of poor quality, or a complete lack of, learning materials, sub-par teacher qualifications and training, and the inability of those learners who do matriculate to go on to study at tertiary institutions owing to poor marks or a lack of financial resources.
When you look at education in South Africa against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that of the approximately one million young people who exit the school system every year, some 65% do so without ever having attained a matric certificate.
At Nedbank, we believe that the key to reversing this situation is to ensure access to education in the truest- sense of the word. It's the reason- more than 50% of our annual corporate social investment spend goes towards education. The vast majority of this education investment, which for 2011 totalled almost R20-million, goes towards improving access to quality education across all learning levels, including school-based educational projects, early-childhood development, rural school refurbishment, teacher training, tertiary education, bursaries and many other government-identified priorities.
In 2012, Nedbank will also be investing over R22-million in support of a holistic school intervention programme. The programme answers the identified need for access to appropriate and transformative education throughout any individual's life stages by building the country's education offering through strong leadership, quality teaching, resourced learners, adequate infrastructure, community involvement, and proper academic and financial support.
Through this highly integrated and holistic approach, Nedbank is helping to address many of the barriers- that still remain to true educational access in our country. When viewed in combination with the government's focus on raising the quality of education available, this approach is vital if South Africa is to have any hope of creating and maintaining the knowledge-based economy it needs to compete successfully at a global level.
The simple truth is that, because all of us in South Africa stand to benefit from an effective education system, we all have a responsibility to contribute towards their achievement.
We cannot afford to be observers of education reform and development any longer. We must involve ourselves, as individuals and as businesses, in making sure each of our young people has unfettered access to the quality, level and type of education they need to become tomorrow's leaders, innovators and workforce. Only when we succeed in balancing high-quality education with true access to appropriate and effective learning will our youth finally be fully empowered to achieve their full potential — and take our country to even greater heights of success.
Kone Gugushe is divisional executive: corporate social responsibility at Nedbank Group