Defend Truth


Will we draw wisdom from PIRLS, or continue on our disastrous education path?


Mike Russell is the retired head of Bridge House School in the Winelands of the Cape. Prior to that, he was head of Redhill in Morningside, Johannesburg. For a short period, he worked as an education consultant and adult trainer in the publishing world, and he kicked off his career as an English and French teacher at Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.

What is needed – urgently (certainly before another seven years passes by) — is a total reboot of our basic education system, from preschool right through to the National Senior Certificate.

So the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have been published. PIRLS results from 57 countries show that only two out of 10 of our Grade 4s can read with understanding. We are last on that table. And now we panic – or at least some of us do. These results are marginally worse than the 2016 PIRLS outcomes – seven years ago.

I listened to a politician’s soundbite on a radio talk show this week, and of course, the pandemic is to blame – a pandemic that wasn’t even imagined seven years ago, when we finished 50th out of 50 nations on the PIRLS table.

Seven. Years. Ago.

Of course, the pandemic has impacted upon our education and every facet of life. There can be no getting away from that, but 56 other countries’ results were also part of this Covid-impacted survey.

I don’t know how they chose to manage Covid-19 protocols in their schools, but there can be no doubt that they too felt the impact of disrupted schooling and life. Despite that, some countries’ results have improved and many have held their own.

It strikes this writer that the pandemic has become a wonderful source of smoke and mirrors. The writing – clearly comprehensible writing – was on the wall a long time ago. And now we’re gnashing our teeth.

It’s easier to blame a virus and then apply some emergency Band-Aid to what is clearly a chronic haemorrhage.

My greatest concern now is what the education authorities at national, provincial, district and circuit level will do to “fix” this situation. I fear there will be commissions followed by a deluge of paperwork, standardised assessments and compliance tick-boxes, that will drive many already overburdened, conscientious teachers out of the profession – and will make absolutely no difference to children’s learning.

My other great concern is that a frightening proportion of South African children are lost and frustrated because their literacy levels mean that very little makes any sense at school. That, and the absence of a sense of purpose, will see yet another cohort of young people who will not complete secondary education.

What is needed

We are not thinking systemically. We are not holding the best interests of our children at the centre of what we do. We are not thinking proactively. It’s easier to blame a virus and then apply some emergency Band-Aid to what is clearly a chronic haemorrhage.

What is needed – urgently (certainly before another seven years passes by) – is a total reboot of our basic education system, from preschool right through to the National Senior Certificate.

We could start by making our schools safe places for children – and teachers. We could start with improved teacher training – particularly at early childhood development (ECD) level, but right through all phases.

We could start by raising the status of teachers in communities. We could start by ensuring every single one of our teachers is worthy of that raised status. We could start by relieving principals of repetitive, time-consuming and pointless administration and liberate them to be visiting classrooms and mentoring teachers.

We should be recruiting the brightest of the bright to the profession – and keeping them there. We could and must add on-the-job training in the short to medium term. We could start by bringing in retired and willing expert teachers, especially at ECD level, as mentors.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pirls findings point to a lame-duck minister of education and a generational catastrophe

Possibly above all, we could start by shelving the curriculum and focusing almost entirely on reading for the next three years at foundation phase level. If we get reading for understanding fixed, the rest of the subjects will follow on an upward trend.

We could start with a think-tank of diverse stakeholders with the mandate to recommend significant changes. We should be learning from other countries what they are doing to improve or sustain healthy literacy and numeracy levels.

We could start by ensuring that decision-makers actually understand what it’s like in a classroom. We could start with all unions allowing their members to be held accountable. We should be setting targets, and more importantly realistic, relevant, stretching and measurable action plans to bring about improvement.

Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s time for outrage about the quality of learning in SA’s schools

We could emphasise school-parent partnerships to encourage reading for pleasure at home. We could target National Book Week (5 to 11 September) as a wonderful opportunity to turn a corner.

And what of the publishing houses? What about large-scale partnerships with provincial education departments as a national literacy drive?

At the centre of all this are the children of South Africa. Best we make their futures, rather than bureaucratic tick-boxes, the real focus of whatever interventions are put in place. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted