Poor state of schools dissected at talk

South Africa needs to fix its broken education system or kiss goodbye to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a Stellenbosch University researcher told a meeting in Goodwood last week.

Talking about the state of literacy in South Africa, Dr Nic Spaull said the system discriminated between rich and poor and doomed most children to rubbish schools where they did not learnt to read properly.

The event, held at Oxford University Press and attended by Mandela Rhodes scholars and teachers, commemorated former president Nelson Mandela’s centenary year.

Dr Spaull said it was shocking that 78% of Grade 4s in South Africa could not read for meaning in their mother tongue.

It was vital that children learnt to read within the first three years of school if they were to fit into society.

“We have two schooling systems in our country: one that caters for the rich and one for the poor,” he said.

He illustrated the difference between a Grade 4 pupil who could read 40 words a minute and one who struggled to do so.

“One needs to at least read 40 words per minute to fully comprehend what you have read. If they are unable to do so how will they ever read for pleasure?

“If President Cyril Ramaphosa can’t leapfrog our literacy rates, we can forget about the advent in artificial intelligence and the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in this country,” he said.

He said 80% of South African pupils attended low-quality primary and high schools and 20% attended former Model C schools.

“Studies show that there is some movement of pupils who grew up in rural areas that are able to reach high school and tertiary education level, but that is estimated at close to 5%,” he said.

He gave a breakdown of what the South African labour market looks like – 35% of people in the country are unemployed; 20% are unskilled; 30% are semi-skilled and 15% of people like nurses and teachers are skilled.

Dr Spaull said South Africa’s Gini coefficient – the measure of income inequality – is higher today than it was in 1994.

“Four percent of pupils in South Africa attend fee-charging schools or so-called private school, and 96% of them attend no-fee or public schools.”

Dr Spaull asked a shocked audience: “How do we get this right?”

“The private sector spends R4.5 billion on basic education, and in 2018 the South African government’s expenditure stands at R351 billion. What is the binding constraint to progress in this scenario? There is a broad consensus that capacity and accountability are issues that need to be addressed in South Africa’s schooling system.

“Our government needs to start with capacity, and a study showed that 79% of Grade 6 maths teachers cannot do Grade 6 maths, which is shocking.”

But it was unfair to blame only the teachers, because they also lacked resources, he said.

“Government needs to evaluate what they are doing in this area.

“There are some teachers in our schooling system that are unable to teach children how to read, and more than 50% of teachers trained during the apartheid-era have not been afforded the educational training opportunities to teach reading properly.

“There is a body of knowledge that is needed to teach children how to read,” he said.

In an attempt to bolster literacy rates in the country the Oxford University Press along with Dr Spaull have launched the Aweh! graded reading series, which is available in English, Xhosa and Zulu.

According to Dr Spaull the first 1 000 days of a child’s life are vital for literacy.

“I want to encourage parents to read to their infants. We need to get it right early and in terms of literacy. Teachers are not the only ones who bear the burden of responsibility when it comes to decreasing the literacy rates in South Africa,” he said.

Nelson Mandela once described education as “the great engine of personal development”, saying: “It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation.”

Master’s student in finance
Thabiso Beau, who was at the talk, said Mr Mandela would not be happy with the South African education system of today.

“Our education system is tricky, and I think Madiba would be troubled by it, and I think he would call for a change in the system,” he said.

“I do think we need to get more girls into schools and make sure that they finish to demystify the ‘ivory tower’ that being well-educated is only reserved for men… We also need to debunk the notion that reading is boring and being a nerd is not cool,” he said.

“We need more posters, adverts and we need to make books more affordable.”

Lindokuhle Shongwe, an electrical engineering Master’s student at UCT, said Africa had the youngest population in the world and that could either be a blessing and source of opportunity or a “ticking time bomb”.

Wilton Antonio, a UCT project management Master’s student, said both his parents had not made it past Grade 7, but his father had encouraged him from a young age to write down sentences from books.

“Madiba laid a good foundation for us. Our education problem is a big elephant, and I think that the more awareness there is about it, the less of a problem it will become,” he said.