Don’t be fooled by hype about matric results. South African education still sucks. If all our national crises could be disentangled, education would remain the biggest issue.
Shoddy education restricts individuals, families, communities and nations. It is a stumbling block to macro-economic growth. Without better education, the pipedream of radical socio-economic transformation will become a nightmare.
Less than a month ago, SA received the lowest ranking on a global benchmark when a Progress in International Reading Literacy Study showed that 78% of Grade 4 pupils can’t understand what they read in any language.
Can you imagine what it is like not being able to comprehend even the most simple sentences? How limited is that shrunken world for millions of our children? What are their prospects when billions of other kids are opening new doors of knowledge, perception and opportunity?
It’s not fair. It’s wrong. It’s evil to deny, by design or incompetence, our children the freedom to become fully functional in the 21st century. It is a crime against humanity.
Of course our apartheid past has a role in this. Racial disparities in spending laid the foundations for decades of inequality. Hendrik Verwoerd intentionally restricted the “Bantu education” curriculum to basic literacy and numeracy because he believed black Africans were destined to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
Yet the apartheid excuse cannot last forever. Even if we acknowledge that it will take generations to overcome the legacy, post-1994 administrations have not done enough to improve basic education.
Standards are absurdly low: 30% is a pass in certain subjects; failing pupils are promoted from Grade 11 to Grade 12; and marks are routinely massaged. Thus the matric certificate has become devalued in the eyes of employers and tertiary institutions.
At best matric is a stepping stone, with universities requiring further entrance exams. On average, only about only 35% of Grade I entrants end up passing matric 12 years later. So each year the education system churns out hundreds of thousands of unemployable job seekers.
With official unemployment at 27.7%, and more than 35% when the definition includes those who have given up looking for work, a picture emerges of ever-increasing joblessness. If we want to fix the economy, education must be a top priority.
Throwing money at education is not the answer. South Africa already spends more than 6% of GDP on education, placing it in the top 19% of nations on this measure. But most of that money is misspent and the system is poorly managed.
President Jacob Zuma’s “free higher education” solution is cheap politics. His call for “a skills revolution‚ in pursuit of the radical socio-economic transformation programme” is hot air.
Get the basics right. Class sizes, fuzzy methodology, and the pernicious influence of unions are holding back education. All these can be overcome with political will. This is where new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa could make the biggest impact – if he had the courage.
Yet that task is more likely to be tackled by the new government that will take over after the next elections. Roll on 2019.