Alet Janse van Rensburg

And you thought the crisis was in higher education

2017-12-08 11:52
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga (Picture: City Press)

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga (Picture: City Press)

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South Africans were shocked to learn this week that new figures show that almost 78% of Grade 4 learners can't read for meaning. That's eight out of 10 children who can't understand what they are reading by the time they turn 10 years old.

These numbers come from the results of international, standardised reading tests, taken every five years by Grade 4 learners. South Africa's Grade 4s, who took the test last year, came dead last out of all 50 participating countries.

If you follow the noise around the matric results every year, you'll know that education experts have been saying for years that there is too big an emphasis on these final results, while the real crisis is already unfolding in the foundation phase (Grades 1 to 3). Surely, it's basic logic that if you don't know how to hold a pen, you can't be expected to write your name.

But to say that "so many more matrics passed this year than the last" gains you much more political capital. And so, more resources are poured into the higher grades, while the fact of the matter is that almost half of children who start school in Grade 1 don't even make it to matric.

The reasons for our failing school system are complex, but the unreasonable interference of teachers' unions, a lack of skills and knowledge from teachers and too much lost classroom time mean the majority of our children don't have a fighting chance.

Research done by Stellenbosch University's research unit on socio-economic policy (Resep) published in 2016 showed that only half of primary school learners did the basic minimum of work necessary to cover the curriculum. More than 80% of learners in rural primary schools only completed one page of maths and language in their workbooks per day. What do you imagine they did all day?

Well, it could have something to do with the fact that teachers take too much leave. Research shows that the average Grade 6 teacher is absent from class 19 days per year. At the poorest schools, this number is much higher. More than three-quarters of all leave taken is for one or two days and is, therefore, leave for which no medical certificate is required. You can draw your own conclusions here.

Another part of the problem is that there simply aren't enough qualified teachers, and not enough money to pay the good ones to stay. The Department of Basic Education estimates that, between 2014 and 2016, the system lost nearly 6 500 teachers. This while the number of students increased significantly.

Between 2004 and 2013, Resep has found that the country's universities and colleges could only produce 92 500 qualified teachers, while the system needs up to 30 000 new teachers every year to maintain the current teacher to learner ratio (which already stands at 32.5 learners per teacher, including governing board appointed teachers).

It is no wonder then that, by the time learners reach Grade 9, 75% can't understand basic scientific concepts. If learners can't read, they can't engage meaningfully with the rest of the curriculum and they become "silently excluded" for their entire school career. This leads to a cycle of confusion, underperformance, lack of motivation, frustration, and ultimately, a youth unemployment figure of 56%.

Yes, our lack of economic growth does not help, but who can expect an employer to hire someone who is basically illiterate?

It is also a fact that those who make it to university have a far better chance of getting employed. But that is only a small portion of our youth population. Our basic education is failing young South Africans on a massive scale. Let’s first fix that, before making grand gestures of free higher education for political expedience.

- Alet Janse van Rensburg is opinions editor at News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    education system  |  literacy  |  basic education
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