Is the decline in functional illiteracy something to celebrate?

2012-05-07 07:54

The number of adults considered functionally illiterate has decreased from 27,9% in 2002 to 18,1% in 2011. These statistics were published last week by Statistics South Africa (SSA) in its 2011 Household Survey. People over sixty are most likely to be functionally illiterate, and this is what you would expect of those schooled in an era where the education of a black child was not a Government priority. The question is, has anything changed?

It depends on what one means by functionally illiterate. SSA basis it on survey respondents indicating whether they could "read" a newspaper/magazine or "write" a letter in one language. Our education system requires matrics to achieve an average of 35% across all subjects and calls that a pass. This assumes functional literacy. With a pass of 35 odd percent you may be able to write your name and fill in a basic form. You may even be able to write a basic letter on a job seeking notice board. But could you write a letter of motivation to be accepted into an apprenticeship programme or an FET college? Could you write a letter to motivate why you should be chosen above the hundreds of others that have applied for the same job? With a 35% score, could you form the argument and then write it coherently and grammatically correctly? I think not.

The truth is that while Government popped the champagne corks because of a slight increase in the matric pass rates in 2011, many young people leave the schooling system functionally illiterate and innumerate. I suggest that the Department of Education relooks what it calls a pass and that SSA relooks at how it defines functional literacy.

Last year, Cosmo City Junior Primary school advertised to unemployed matriculants for tutors for the Gauteng Department of Education’s homework support programme. The school received a massive box full of applications and to whittle them down asked all applicants to write a Grade 3 level literacy and numeracy test. Every single one failed the numeracy test, and the bulk failed the literacy test. While Government saw it fit to give each of these applicants a matric certificate, they were not equipped to pass basic Grade 3 tests. SSA and the Department of Education may call these applicants functionally literate. Would you?

Using social investment spend strategically, companies have the power to drive real learning and real improvement within pockets of the public education system. Companies have the power to grow generations of truly literate adults. Use these funds wisely – South Africa needs a literate and numerate workforce if we are to grow and prosper. Spend your social investment funds knowing that the growth and development of our economy depends on it.

Photo caption: A young girl practices her reading in a corporate funded literacy and numeracy programme. She is likely to matriculate as a truly literate adult.



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