Basic education is failing the economy


The desire and expectation of any parent, society or government is that children should receive a good education to enhance their personal development and transform them into good citizens.

Such aspirations are encapsulated in the belief that the rich intellectual heritage derived from the accumulation of human capital is not only crucial for individual progression but is also vital for long-term economic growth and development.

For this to be possible, it is crucial to get the foundation phase right. Therefore, good-quality basic education is one of the non-negotiables, as higher or tertiary education needs sound primary and secondary education to build on.

In South Africa, the advent of democracy triggered significant reforms to the management, governance, curriculum redesign and restructuring, and funding of education. 

The reorientation of the education system encompassed transformation from knowledge accumulation to critical thinking and problem-solving, refocusing the racially segregated public spending on education to targeting poor children.

In most countries, such noble reforms would have improved the quality and equality of education and would have borne tangible fruits. Indeed, South Africa did realise a rapid expansion of education, including increased enrolment, but the quality of education has remained poor and largely characterised by inequality.

Education should provide a way out of the poverty trap, but the ability of the South African education system to act as a reliable conduit for children out of poverty has been limited.

Various international studies attest to the poor quality of our education system. For instance, South Africa has the worst education system of all middle-income countries that participate in cross-national assessments of educational achievement. The latest results available, from the National School Effectiveness Study, which tests numeracy and literacy, show that South Africa’s mean scores for literacy in grade three and grade four were 19% and 27% respectively. The means score for numeracy in these grades in other countries were 28% and 35% respectively.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a quadrennial test conducted in 57 countries, ranks South Africa almost last in its various rankings, even though its scores have been improving.

The results show that 27% of our pupils who have attended school for six years cannot read, compared with 4% in Tanzania and 19% in Zimbabwe. This is despite the fact that on average South Africa allocates between 4.7% and 4.9% of its gross domestic product to basic education whereas Tanzania allocates only about 3.5% but obtains better results.

As a percentage of total government expenditure, in Tanzania primary and secondary education receive about 16% whereas in South Africa basic education receives about 17.1% of the total allocation.

Therefore, there are other factors that are key to underachievement in basic education outcomes. These include inefficiencies and the quality of teachers (knowledge content), among others.

After five years of schooling, about 50% of South African pupils cannot do basic calculations, such as dividing 24 by three. This is hardly surprising when 60% of maths teachers, teaching from grades one to six, failed to pass tests for maths at the grade level, according to the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality.

Under such circumstances, blaming the failure of the system on inadequate financial resources is probably the most natural thing to do, but that misses the picture completely. 

Per capita, South Africa spends more on education than most advanced economies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, yet its primary education system was rated 126th out of 138 countries in the World Economic Forum 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report.

A comparison with other developing countries brings little joy. South Africa’s education system performs worse than those of Zimbabwe, Kenya and Swaziland. This clearly shows that South Africa is not getting the expected rate of return on its investment in education.

The economic stagnation South Africa is experiencing is inextricably linked to the failure of the education system. Education is a robust predictor of labour market outcomes in terms of employment and earnings, and thus is a key determinant of economic growth. 

Therefore, the failure of South Africa’s education system has had an intense effect on the economy. It not only fails the majority of South African pupils but also weakens the labour force; it hampers the market’s absorption of those with fewer skills and limits their contribution to economic growth.

The country’s poor education system also results in inequalities in the returns on skills, unemployment, low labour productivity and low labour income in the self-employed informal sector.

In most countries, quality education offered to rich and poor alike results in increased social mobility; this is unfortunately not the case in South Africa.

There are various reasons for this, but the chief one is the dual education system.

The South African education system can be characterised as having two schooling systems — one for the minority wealthy segment of the population, which is functional and equips pupils with necessary skills, and another for the majority poor population, which is dysfunctional and ill-equipped to provide pupils with the knowledge they should be acquiring at school. Their talents and abilities remain underdeveloped and their economic opportunities remain limited.

The education system thus reinforces social and income inequality.

Inequalities in education quality also constrain the ability of many pupils to access and complete university education, thus preventing them from participating meaningfully in the labour market. This is because few of them attain a university entrance pass and even fewer qualify to pursue degrees in the fields of mathematics and engineering, where most of the opportunities exist.

Unequal educational attainment is evident in the labour market because the large unemployment burden is disproportionately carried by young people. Those without matric have poor skills and few work-relevant competencies struggle to enter a labour market that demands highly skilled workers.

The existence of extreme inequality two decades after the demise of apartheid is a strong indictment of the education system’s inability to surmount historic prejudices, in spite of substantial reforms in the governance and funding of poor schools.

There are wide-ranging policy options with which the government could improve the education system. They include:

  • Enhancing the equity, effectiveness and efficiency of resource use across the education system;
  • Increasing the managerial, administrative and technical capacity of the national and provincial bureaucracies;
  • Increasing teacher content knowledge and teaching skills;
  • Introducing entrepreneurship learning within the education system; and
  • Developing an education system for the fourth industrial revolution that actively applies knowledge to collaborative problem-solving.

Thando Ngozo and Sabelo Mtantato are researchers at the Financial and Fiscal Commission. These are their own views

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