In the year of Nelson Mandela’s centenary, it feels only fitting to reflect on one of his greatest passions: children’s education. I personally benefited from his visionary leadership. When a small liberal arts college in the United States of America, Amherst College, awarded him an honorary doctorate, he insisted that if they truly wanted to honour him, they would make their elite education accessible to children from his country and region.
And so the Mandela Scholarship at Amherst was born, awarded to two young people each year. Madiba’s small and selfless decision made it possible for me to earn a degree there, and to go on to complete a PhD from the University of Oxford at age 28. As a girl who grew up in the small mining towns of the North West and the Free State, who knows whether I would have attained such heights had Madiba not used his power to unlock opportunities for me.
One thing is clear, South Africa needs his quality of leadership if we are to close the opportunity gap for the country’s children – especially for the millions of little girls and boys from small mining towns and villages just like mine who also dream of better prospects.
The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessments have shown that 78% of children in Grade 4 in South Africa cannot read at the most basic level for meaning in any language. To put this figure into perspective, only 4% of the children assessed internationally were similarly unable to read for meaning. Tested in five year intervals, the latest PIRLS placed South Africa last out of 50 countries, behind countries like Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait and Iran. Without basic literacy at age 10, what kind of future are we condemning our children to?
That said, it is important to commend the education officials responsible for South Africa’s participation in the PIRLS, as we were only one of three African countries to do so, as public policy expert David Harrison has previously noted. One hundred and forty-five countries chose not to place their education systems under international scrutiny, and thereby short-changed their children. Nevertheless, the PIRLS results have reinforced the education crisis we are facing in SA – one that only a tireless commitment to education that Madiba modelled can solve.
In the last administration, financial commitments to education were exploited as political tools of a flailing presidency. As young people took to the streets to call for university fees to fall, the political leadership responded with a knee-jerk reaction out of political expediency rather than strategic foresight. While the needs at the tertiary level remain pronounced, only around 10% of all children who begin Grade 1 even reach university. What is more, an unacceptably high level of school drop-out takes places between Grade 1 and Matric – last year this rate was roughly at 50%. The vicious cycle of low educational attainment and poverty must be stopped.
Access to quality education is one of the best ways to help people escape poverty. In fact, research has shown that quality early learning (in preschools, crèches and playgroups) is the biggest disrupter of the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Not only is early learning a crucial weapon in the fight against poverty, Nobel Prize winning economist, Professor James Heckman, argues that there is no greater investment a country can make than in children between the ages of zero and five as it yields the highest rate of return.
The basic building blocks of early grade reading are formed in pre-school. Neuroscience shows that neuro-plasticity – the brain’s ability to learn – is greatest between ages zero and five. If the basic scaffolding of a child’s ability to learn for the rest of their life is mostly developed before their fifth birthday, surely our greatest investment must be in the early years?
How can we free ourselves from our educational quagmire? We can demand that government give every child in South Africa the benefit of a “head” start in life. Unfortunately, the patterns of privilege and dispossession of the past continue to determine the shape of access to early learning in South Africa today.
A more equal and just South Africa will require a significant financial commitment by leaders in government. Early learning currently only accounts for just over 1% of the national education budget. How can it be that we commit the most meagre of resources to the part of the education pipeline that holds most of our children?
We must allocate more resources to early learning – as a moral imperative. Otherwise, we are systematically writing children off by not ensuring that every child can realise their full potential.
Let us remember the chilling words of activist Bryan Stevenson: “Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat the rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned.”
So what can we do to become a people, a country of character?
Well, based on the PIRLS results, we know that over three quarters of the children who were unable to read by Grade 4 come from remote rural communities, small towns and villages as well as townships. Nine out of 10 of them come from households that are income poor or just making ends meet. And almost all of their schools have some shortage of resources. We know, too, that two-thirds of them come from schools without a library.
Major structural challenges need to be addressed urgently to tackle the crisis. This will take time. But in the short term, there are actions we can each take to start making inroads. To help older children, we can become reading champions at local schools. Nal’ibali, a national reading-for-joy campaign that has a network of 2,500 reading clubs across the country, offers great opportunities for ordinary people to uncover the simple magic of reading to children. To date, the campaign has distributed 95-million stories and 32.6-million multilingual reading materials to children across the country.
For younger children, we can support and join the work of initiatives like SmartStart, a national network of early learning providers who aim to “give every child the power to succeed” – starting with the poorest. It ambitiously aims to serve the one-million children between the ages of three and five who do not have access to early learning, by 2025. In its pilot phase, SmartStart reached 33,000 children in 9 provinces. Ready-made, scalable solutions like these can catapult South Africa into a better, brighter and more literate future.
Madiba made it possible for me to reach my full potential. Who will open the doors for the next generation – and give them the “head” start they deserve? DM
Dr Sebabatso Manoeli heads up the DG Murray Trust’s (www.dgmt.co.za) work to keep all children on track by Grade 4