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Pirls findings point to a lame-duck minister of education and a generational catastrophe

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Baxolile Nodada is Member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance and is the Shadow Minister of Basic Education.

The Pirls results from 2016 showed that 78% of Grade 4 children couldn’t read in any language. This week we learnt that that number had escalated to 81% in 2021, wiping out a decade of progress.

Tuesday this week was one of the most frustrating days of my life. As the Shadow Minister of Basic Education, I am used to listening to long presentations by the minister and the director-general telling us all the wonderful things they are doing in education.

But Tuesday was different. They were releasing the results of the latest round of an international reading assessment, the Progress in International Reading Literacy (Pirls). You see the thing with surveys of achievement is that they don’t care what you say you’ve done, they just measure what children actually know, and what they revealed was devastating. 

Even before Covid-19 we knew we had a reading crisis. The previous Pirls results from 2016 showed that 78% of Grade 4 children couldn’t read in any language despite being in school for four years — about 800 days of schooling.

On Tuesday we learnt that that number had escalated to 81% of Grade 4s that could not read in any language in 2021, taking us back to 2011 levels of achievement and wiping out a decade of progress. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: International study shows most Grade 4s in South Africa cannot read for meaning

It is also very concerning that 56% of Grade 6s can’t read for meaning at a Grade 4 level. 

It’s true that the main reason for these learning losses is because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. All countries experienced the largest shock of a generation, yet why is it that of the 33 countries in Pirls, South Africa had the largest decline in reading achievement? 

The reason is twofold: we closed schools for too long, and we didn’t have a plan to support learners while they were shut. 

Firstly, we had two years of school closures and rotational timetables with no support to no-fee learners then or now. The 2019 General Household Survey showed that only 9% of South Africans had an internet connection in their homes. It turns out those are also richer households who send their kids to fee-charging schools (public and private).

So learners who go to one of those schools (as mine does) had some ways for teachers to try and teach remotely using Zoom. These schools and families were also better equipped to try and keep learning going while face-to-face attendance wasn’t possible.

But what about the 75% of learners in no-fee schools? For them, if they weren’t at school they weren’t learning. Those learners lost 50% of their school days in 2020 and more than 25% of their school days in 2021. Is it any surprise that when you close schools and do nothing that learners’ education goes through the floor? 

Expert guidance ignored

So, the Pirls results weren’t surprising. It was however concerning that expert advice was ignored. 

The Ministerial Advisory Committee warned the DBE in July 2021 to send all learners back to school immediately: “It is the opinion of the school working group that the harms of learners attending school on a rotational basis — specifically the severe cognitive, nutritional, and psychosocial costs — exceed the benefits of reduced Covid-19 infections from smaller class sizes”.

However, rotational timetables continued for another six months.  

We have all the evidence we could ever want painting in gruesome detail the length and breadth of this generational catastrophe. Teachers are at a loss as to how to deal with Grade 5 kids that are essentially Grade 4 kids, and Grade 4 kids that are essentially Grade 3 kids and so on. 

It turns out most sensible countries around the world have announced huge catch-up programmes. Just this month, Chile announced a detailed four-year plan to catch up learning losses from Covid-19 costing R7.2-billion a year.  

In South Africa, there is no national catch-up plan. The DBE’s dribs and drabs are a disgrace talking about free websites and dropping untrained, unemployed youth in classrooms. The only exception is the Western Cape.

The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) acknowledged the full extent of learning losses in the province and just last week announced a three-year, massive R1.2-billion “Back on Track” programme focussing on additional teaching time to remediate learning losses. Things like additional tutoring, Saturday classes, holiday camps, training and resources for parents, and a new literacy workbook per child per term for Grades 1-3. 

The sobering answer to all of this is that we have a minister who cares more about peace than progress and a director-general who cares more about visiting matric “second chance” programmes than actually governing in Pretoria.  

Remove the rot

The Pirls proves what has been very clear for a number of years now: Minister Angie Motshekga is not up to the task, and if things are left to the ANC government, she will surely be rewarded for her mass failures instead of suffering the consequences.  

How is it that we still have pit latrines three decades into democracy? Every single ANC president has promised to eradicate pit latrines, from Mandela to Mbeki to Zuma to Ramaphosa. In 2018 Minister Motshekga told us that pit latrines will be eradicated “in the next three years”, yet five years later in March 2023 another child drowned in a school pit latrine in the Eastern Cape.  

Our national government is so dysfunctional and incompetent that it cannot build toilets or feed children, or keep the lights on, let alone teach children to read. How on earth is it going to implement a budgeted and systematic programme to catch up on generational learning losses?   

The people of South Africa are not stupid. There is a storm coming in 2024 and it will not look kindly on a rudderless, corrupt, and inept ANC. DM

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