South Africa's education system leaves many children behind due to crumbling infrastructure, teacher shortages and a lack of educational progress. Photo:
The pedestal on which the South African population stands, and on which a growing economy depends, is young adults under 25, who number nearly 27 million and make up 44% of society.
However, the future they are heading towards does not look bright.
Statistics SA revealed a youth unemployment rate of 63.9% for those aged 15-24 in the first quarter of 2022. Besides the teetering economic conditions making entry positions hard to attain, the key to unlocking potential lies in empowering future generations through quality education.
President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised in his State of the Nation address that “access to quality education for all is the most powerful instrument we have to end poverty”.
However, numerous challenges hinder school children in South Africa from accessing this powerful tool despite the constitutional guarantee in section 29 that every person has the right to “a basic education”, which the state is obligated to “make progressively available and accessible”.
Although South Africa budgeted R298.1 billion (4.63% of GDP) for basic education during 2022-23, representing an expenditure of R22 213.16 for each of the 13 419 971 learners in the public school system, this has not translated into a better standard of education.
South Africa’s education system leaves many children behind due to crumbling infrastructure, teacher shortages and a lack of educational progress.
Only 20% of public schools are properly functional, with an enormous gap between the results they achieve and the outcomes of the other 80% of public schools. For example, children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in maths than those in the next 6 600 schools combined.
Run-down schools, characterised by poorly maintained buildings, dysfunctional and unhygienic sanitary facilities and a lack of basic equipment and learning material, do not provide a conducive learning environment.
According to the FW de Klerk Foundation’s Annual Human Rights Report Card 2022, 1 423 public schools still only have pit latrines, 80.7% had no access to laboratories, 69.9% had no library and 35% had no sports facilities. In the Eastern Cape, there were still 436 mud schools.
With almost 200 days of rolling blackouts recorded in 2022, learners also had to contend with the disruption posed by the ongoing impact of load-shedding. For many, studying for tests and examinations had to be done by candlelight, with several power outages on an almost daily basis.
Nevertheless, with well-skilled teachers, the lack of equipment and infrastructure in schools — and even load-shedding — would not be decisive in the quality of education received and results attained. Yet, in 2022, 1 575 unqualified and underqualified teachers were identified in public schools.
Coupled with the challenging conditions teachers face in public schools — with a lack of resources, teaching in overcrowded classrooms and salaries often not paid on time — employment at private schools becomes much more attractive, resulting in an even smaller pool of qualified and motivated teachers for public schools.
The deep gulf between the conditions and performance of students between the approximately 2 000 private and 22 500 public school institutions is apparent, with income inequality perpetuating this divide further as children from poorer rural households suffer the worst.
Nutrition also plays a major role in a child’s development and has an impact on academic performance, as confirmed by numerous studies.
Despite a child’s right to “basic nutrition”, 32.5% of households with children in South Africa experience hunger, 26.3% are at risk of hunger and 27% of children under five are stunted.
As parents and guardians grapple with the deepening income instability that makes putting food on the table difficult, support for children’s school attendance unfortunately dwindles.
With only 33.8% of South African children living with both parents, 43.4% living with their mothers, 3.9% with their fathers and 18.8 % with neither parent, the income prospects of most homes lie with a single person, who must then compete with the unemployment rate to earn a living.
The result is that where a child comes from has a significant impact on their educational and future prospects.
These circumstances are mirrored in the performance of students: as aptly put by former deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: “We are load-shedding our children.”
Her annual 2030 Reading Panel revealed that only 18% of grade 4 pupils can read for meaning. Similarly, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which assessed literacy levels internationally in 2016, found that 78% of the examined South African grade 4 learners did not reach the lowest benchmark and are thus ranked in last place out of the 50 participating countries.
Poor performance in numeric literacy was noted in the 2019 Trends of the International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which assessed the mathematics and science knowledge of fourth and eighth graders around the world.
Although South Africa chose to administer TIMSS to grade 5 and grade 9 learners — making the majority one year older than many of their global participants — 63% of grade 5 learners could not achieve the TIMSS basic threshold for maths and 72% of learners similarly could not show that they had attained basic science knowledge. South Africa consistently scored in the bottom three of the countries assessed.
Although the matric class of 2022 reached a pass rate of 80.1% (improving by 3.7% compared to 2021) of the 1 177 089 children who entered grade 1 in 2011, only 752 003 (63.9%) wrote matric in 2022, 49.3% passed and 23.7% achieved a university entrance pass.
However, it is possible to pass matric with 40% in two of six subjects and 30% in three others. It is hence questionable whether today’s matric certificate can still be regarded as proof of preparedness for further tertiary education or to enter the job market.
Alarmingly, a 2021 report by Stats SA revealed that “almost three out of 10 pupils aged 18 years (29.3%) and four out of nine (46.3%) of 19-year-olds had dropped out of school”. This high drop-out rate can be attributed mainly to poor academic performance for 21.2% of the cases.
Children’s starting conditions for academic performance vary, shaped by their backgrounds and lived realities.
The basic prerequisite for a good education is the enjoyment of a good quality of life. The government should play a major role in providing adequate living conditions for children, such as food security, shelter and safety, as well as access to basic education.
The deficits in the status quo show that children’s rights are at risk and that — for many — a safe and decent learning environment is not yet a reality.
According to the Human Capital Index, a child born in South Africa today would be 43% less productive than a child with complete education and full health — pointing to inefficient spending on education.
Particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic, when educational progress suffered greatly, it is crucial that no child be left behind and that government prioritise providing quality education to all.
Considering that South Africa is the country with the world’s highest level of inequality (scoring 0,63 on the GINI coefficient scale), the immediate focus should be on ensuring quality education for future generations, as this is a prerequisite for narrowing this enormous gap.
Long-term investment in education is the key to sustainable economic growth, improving job opportunities in the labour market and ensuring a future South Africa which truly can “free the potential of each person”.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.