/ 26 June 2023

Education needs to prepare youngsters holistically for the future

The Gauteng department of education has committed to ensuring learners are not only exposed to technology or experience utilisation of tablets and computers for the first time at university.
Learners must be given a breadth of skills, beyond literacy and numeracy, to prepare them for an ever-changing world


Many things can be true at once. In recent years, the antithesis of this statement has taken over people and politics alike. It seems that as the challenges in our country become more visible and deepen, our nation — and the world at large — becomes more polarised — this or that, never both, with little room for nuance. I want to challenge us to step out of our comfort zones and into an arena that is more grey. Here, many things can be true at once. 

Yes, we are facing a national reading crisis that needs ambitious and pointed redress. The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study results show that 81% of grade four learners cannot read for meaning. This certainly is cause for alarm. Learners who cannot read will probably have less capacity to learn, resulting in fewer passing matric with results that will help them get into tertiary education or employment (if at all). 

But, at the same time, we also need our education system to be developing learners with a holistic breadth of skills, beyond literacy and numeracy. I know this might seem ambitious or even deluded — how can we talk beyond literacy and numeracy when we don’t even have that right? And this is where I urge you to step into that grey arena — a space where all the multitudes of the complex education system can be held at the same time. 

Yes, we need urgent focus on improving the literacy outcomes of our learners but we also need to invest in developing holistic learners who are prepared for an ever-changing world. If we don’t, we run the risk of our learners being left behind. 

As the world around us moves faster than ever before, we hold the responsibility to “prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, to tackle societal challenges that we cannot yet imagine and to use technologies that have not yet been invented”. This means supporting all aspects of their development — physically, socially, emotionally and academically. Practically, this means embedding skills like adaptability, problem solving, creativity, resilience and communication from the taught curriculum into the classroom so that children can learn to thrive and reach their full potential in ever-evolving societies and workforces. 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) lists these skills, as well as critical thinking, innovation, leadership and technology use, as some of the most coveted for the future of work. 

It doesn’t have to be a trade-off. Research shows that investing in holistic skills development reinforces literacy, numeracy and academic outcomes. Decades of research in psychology, social science, neuroscience and behavioural science illustrates the intertwined nature of academic and social-emotional functions. 

Evidence shows that a breadth of skills, such as self-regulation, awareness and resilience, are prerequisites for learning skills such as literacy and numeracy. A recent OECD study on Social and Emotional Skills (2020) showed that learners’ social and emotional skills are key predictors of school marks across subjects, contexts, geographies and age cohorts. Skills such as persistence and curiosity were most strongly related to higher academic performance. 

Studies coming out of Ethiopia and Belize reiterate these findings and highlight that when students are exposed to holistic teaching methods and skills, they excel academically in comparison to those who are not. 

Beyond academic achievement, a growing body of evidence emphasises that adopting holistic approaches not only equips children to better meet the challenges and opportunities they face at home, school and in the world at large, but also holds transformative power. Prioritising a breadth of skills in education systems has the potential to unlock lasting change — for children, society and the economy. 

As we commemorate Youth Month, the need for a transformed society and economy is apparent. In its latest report, Statistics South Africa states that the “youth remain vulnerable” as the unemployment rate reaches a record high of 62.1% for those aged 15 to 24 and a staggering 3.7 million young people (out of 10.2 million) were recorded as not in employment, education or training. 

With only 19 out of 100 young learners being able to read for meaning, and millions of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 unemployed, we are in the midst of a youth crisis. What is also clear is that the socio-economic effects of these realities are far reaching. South Africa is already the most unequal country in the world; more than half of our population live in poverty. 

Young people are the beating heart of our country and the future of our nation. Education remains a key determinant for their future success — including earning capacity, future employment and overall well-being. Investing in our education system, course correcting and imbuing the youth with a breadth of holistic skills — and, of course, fluent and comprehensive literacy and numeracy skills — is key to ensuring that young South Africans leave school with the skills, competencies and values that will set them up for future employability and entrepreneurship. 

But beyond just the economic value-add, we should be working towards cultivating a society where the youth are empowered to tackle our nation’s challenges — climate change and social cohesion, among many others. 

It seems that the government shares the same understanding and is taking a step in the right direction. The Department of Basic Education is exploring strengthening the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement programme, with the intention to reinforce competencies for a changing world in the curriculum, and work with teachers to update teaching, learning and assessment practices. 

As the education ecosystem evolves, four considerations are pivotal to the realisation of these ambitious plans: 1. There needs to be deliberate and sustained focus on implementation, if adjustments to policy are to be meaningfully realised. 2. The wealth of learning from previous education reforms should guide any efforts to strengthen the current system. 3. Adequate resources (human and financial) should be allocated to implement any proposed plans. 4. Actors across civil society, the private sector and the government need to collaborate and forge a joint way forward. Only then will we begin to see tangible changes in classrooms and improved quality of education for all of South Africa’s children. 

In the face of complex challenges, multiple realities can be true at once. Poverty, inequality and youth unemployment are the simultaneous lived reality for most of our population. To address these issues, we need to step out of the false dichotomy that is so easy to fall into and instead begin to face the complexities of change from all angles. Because there is no one silver bullet to help us achieve the goals set out in the National Development Plan but rather many that can (and should) be explored at once. 

Shahana Bhabha represents the Education Advocacy team, Save the Children South Africa.