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South Africa’s education crisis

Stampede death, test scores, and the ANC highlight the crisis.

PHILADELPHIA – No one would dispute the importance of a decent education, especially in today’s ever-more complex world, and even more especially in today’s South Africa, with its massive skills shortages and economic inequalities.

It’s not hard to define what a decent education consists of. To be useful, basic education (primary and high school) must be high quality. Pupils must learn to read, speak, and write a useful language, they must learn mathematical skills and the basics of how to look after their own health and finances. Finally, given the world that we live in and the ease with which information can be accessed, they should learn how to find information, how to judge the quality of the information that they find, and how to use it to solve problems and formulate arguments – in bygone days, learners needed to learn stuff by heart, but in a world where everyone has a 3G smartphone (which is not as far away as you think it is), it’s far more important for them to be able to use and create information than it is for them to memorise it.

As far as higher education goes, much of the same applies, except that at that point there should be greater emphasis on students learning something specific and useful – engineers and doctors, for example, do need to memorise a defined body of knowledge. But again, given the rapid growth, accessibility, and expansion of knowledge, there should be a strong emphasis on how to learn, and how to use information (for some cool thoughts on what people should learn at university, see this article).

None of what I’ve written here is controversial; it’s current wisdom in the world of education, as can be gleaned from glancing through the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education or any other trade publication. So we do know what education needs to do for kids and young adults today.

What South Africa is clearly struggling with is how to get it done. Consider, for example, the results of last year’s Annual National Assessment, in which grade 3 learners scored an average of 35% in literacy tests and 28% in numeracy tests, while grade 6 learners scored 28% and 30% respectively. This starkly illustrates the underperformance of SA’s primary school system – South African kids can’t read, write, or add.

Or consider the country’s matric results. As Malcolm Rees writes, while the matric pass rate is rising, many of these “passes” are with marks lower than 50%, one in ten learners who enrol in SA’s basic education system leave with the qualifications necessary to apply for entry into an university, and maths and science are among the most-often failed and least-popular subjects, despite their vital importance.

Finally, as the death of a woman during a stampede at the University of Johannesburg illustrates, our tertiary education system is unable to meet the demand that exists for higher education.

The ANC itself has admitted that education is in a crisis. In a recent statement, the party wrote, “We have made progress in building a single, non-racial, non-sexist and national public education system, and have reached near universal enrolment in primary and increasingly in secondary education. However, major challenges remain – in particular the huge challenge of the quality of education and throughput rates at all levels of the our education and training system. This constitutes a crisis, with South Africa performing poorly in comparison with other peer countries on nearly every single education indicator.”

The crisis is real, but what is the underlying issue? It’s not money. As the chart below shows, South Africa spends plenty on education, and that amount has been growing every year. Overall, South Africa spends over 5% of its GDP on education, putting it broadly in line with countries like the USA, the UK, Holland and Austria.

But if the problem isn’t money, then what is it? Unfortunately, while the ANC’s document recognises the crisis and calls for “urgent and practical action” to fix it, there isn’t much in the way of ideas.  This isn’t unusual. Education is in crisis everywhere, and no one is quite sure how to fix it so that it works in the modern world. There are, however, a few recommendations that seem to apply globally.

1.      Recruit and reward excellent teachers, and fire bad ones. A good teacher can make a world of difference to learners’ achievements, and a system for assessing performance and for rewarding and punishing teachers according to performance is vital.

2.      Use technology. Technology is a good way to engage students, and to ensure that the same quality materials are being used across the board. 

3.      Get parents involved. Having parents who help with homework, books in your house, and a family that values education is absolutely vital to the success of any learner. The ANC must include a broader family-focused effort in its attempts to save South Africa from its educational crisis.

4.      Design a syllabus for the world and the country as it is. There is a tendency in the ANC to attempt to create an ideal world, rather than deal with South Africa as it is in reality. The SA curriculum must be designed with a realistic idea of the country’s resources and the kinds of jobs learners will be able to find. Sensible curriculum design should be a major goal.

*This article first appeared in Discovery Invest

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