An Overview of South Africa’s Schooling System

August 14, 2014Louise Albertyn

Earlier this June, CEI and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship hosted a challenging, sobering and energising seminar with leading education researcher Nic Spaull.

Spaull addressed an audience of NGO practitioners, academics, funders and Western Cape Education Department officials. In presenting an overview of the South African education system, the following issues were explored:

Students perform poorly on local and international assessments of educational achievement

Over the last ten years, a range of tests have shown that students are producing dismal results. Some noteworthy tests include:

  • Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003 tested Grade Eight Mathematics & Science. Out of 50 countries, including six African countries, SA came last.prePIRLS 2011 tested Grade Four Reading. 29% of South African Grade Four students are completely illiterate (cannot decode text in any language) 
  • TIMSS 2011 tested Grade Nine Mathematics & Science. SA has joint lowest performance of 42 countries. 
  • Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2006 tested Grade 4/5 Reading. Out of 45 countries, SA came last. 87% of Grade Four students and 78% of Grade Five students were deemed to be “at serious risk of not learning to read”
  • prePIRLS 2011 tested Grade Four Reading. 29% of South African Grade Four students are completely illiterate (cannot decode text in any language) 
  • Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) III 2007 tested Grade Six Reading & Mathematics. SA came 10/15 for Reading and 8/15 for Mathematics

The SA Education System is highly unequal

Spaull argued that the education sector is essentially two public schooling systems and the majority (75-80%) of students is in the dysfunctional part of the schooling system with the minority in functional schools. Averages are often quite misleading when talking about SA Education as the system does not present a typical bell curve and so the average represents no one. Given the apartheid-era policies, it is unsurprising that the inequalities we see in South Africa can be seen along a number of correlated dimensions such as geography and race.

Content knowledge of teachers (particularly Mathematics teachers) is extremely problematic

Teachers’ poor conceptual knowledge of the subjects they are teaching is a fundamental constraint on the quality of teaching and learning activities, and consequently on the quality of learning outcomes.

A grave learning deficit exists

In large parts of the schooling system there is very little learning taking place. NSES followed about 15000 students (266 schools) and tested them in Grade 3 (2007), Grade 4 (2008) and Grade 5 (2009). At the end of Grade 5 most (55%+) quintile 1-4 students could not answer a simple Grade-3-level problem. Of 100 students that started school in 2002, 49% did not reach Matric and 11% failed Matric. Of these, 99% did not go on to achieve a non-matric qualification. This is a significant contributor to the 50% youth unemployment rate.

How does all of this affect the labour-market and South African society?

SA is one of the top three most unequal countries in the world. Between 78% and 85% of total inequality is explained by wage inequality. While it intervening in the labour-market (BBBEE)  to address this inequality can be effective, there needs to be a greater focus on (pre) school interventions. Social grants can help to reduce abject poverty, but cannot drastically change inequality. Unless there is an increase in the wages of black labour-market entrants one cannot change the structure of SA income distribution and this is not possible without first improving the quality of education.

In the Q&A session, Spaull encouraged NGOs to have their programmes rigorously evaluated in order to effectively show funders and the government whether or not they are working. After a seminar of  sobering data as well as unapologetic views ““It is not an overstatement to say that South African education is in crisis,” Spaull did add: “The Department of Basic Education has begun to focus on the basics: CAPS curriculum, Workbooks (numeracy and literacy) and Annual National Assessments (ANAs). There has also been some improvement in Gr ade9 student outcomes between TIMSS 2003 and TIMSS 2011”.  

Accountability and building teachers’ capacity are strategies for improvement. On the matter of accountability, “Only when schools have both the incentive to respond to an accountability system as well as the capacity to do so will there be an improvement in student outcomes.”  

So with all of this said, what is the way forward?

It is important to acknowledge the extent of the problem: Low-quality education is one of the three largest crises facing our country (along with HIV/AIDS and unemployment). The political will and public support are needed for widespread reform.

There is a need to focus on the basics:

  • every child MUST master the basics of foundational numeracy and literacy as these are the building blocks of further education
  • teachers need to be in school teaching
  • every teacher needs a minimum competency (basic) in the subjects they teach
  • every child (teacher) needs access to adequate learning (teaching) materials
  • every school day and every school period needs to be used – maximise instructional time
  • ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes with Grade R as we have with the rest of schooling

Information, accountability & transparency need to be increased at all levels: Department of Basic Education, district, school, classroom, student. Strengthen ANA. Get psychometrics right (so they are comparable across years), externally evaluate at one grade and set realistic goals for improvement whilst holding people accountable

Focus on teachers: find a way of raising the quality of both new, but especially existing teachers.

Nic Spaull is an education researcher with the Research on Socio-economic Policy group at Stellenbosch University. His research focuses on the quality of education in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. He has been involved with a number of research projects commissioned by local and international organisations including UNESCO, UNICEF, The World Bank, The European Union, The Department of Basic Education, The South African Presidency, The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, and the Centre for Development and Enterprise. He also sits on the Joint Advisory Committee of the South African Human Rights Commission and regularly writes op-eds for South Africa's major newspapers.

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