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Pirls results a blaring fire alarm for South African society

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Mmusi Maimane is leader of Build One SA.

We cannot afford to have 19% of our Grade 4 pupils only able to read at the lowest international benchmark of reading. We need to have over 80% of our pupils reading at the intermediate level and to do that we need to make urgent interventions.

The release this week of the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) confirmed to South Africans the extent of miseducation under this government and its champion of incompetence, Angie Motshekga. The results show that 81% of South African pupils in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning in any language.

That means that while a child may be able to read the literal text, she cannot interpret the text into context for meaning. It is performative rather than perceptive — the learning equivalent of a food critic without any taste buds.

At this point, it can only be deliberate to keep poor black South Africans in poverty and without a way out. It’s a copy-and-paste of the apartheid government’s education system for a black child. Apartheid confined townships to dormitories of miseducation and unemployment. The Pirls defines that the dream is on its way to being achieved with the latest jobs stats also released this week illustrating the causative effect of miseducation on unemployment.

Before delving into the analysis, let’s begin with the solutions. How can we ensure quality is drastically improved and access to better schools is opened up?

Retaking control

One of the first policies I will introduce in government is a National School Voucher Programme that returns the power back to the learner’s parents to decide which school a child attends. Funded by redirecting existing education spending, it will allow parents and communities to reward schools that are well-managed and that employ good teachers, while pressuring underperforming schools to reform. With parents and caregivers in charge of the purse strings, schools will be held to high standards, and the power of teachers’ unions to hold our children’s education hostage will be significantly curtailed.

A range of models to do this will be implemented, including government-run schools, and low-fee private schools accessible through the voucher programme, and private schools with higher fees supported by scholarships for deserving children who cannot afford elite education, and schools dedicated to agricultural, technical or other vocational training.

Better schools mean that more matriculants will be qualifying for further study to learn the skills our economy needs to thrive and we will make available full higher education grants, financed by redirecting existing government education spending and cutting corruption, to any matriculant with excellent grades who qualifies for further study in fields critical to building a fairer South African economy for all. This means that these graduates will leave universities and technical colleges debt-free to start their lives as productive citizens.

This will be buttressed by incentivising excellent teachers through improved payment packages and ensuring teacher unions do not overreach and exert undue power and influence.

Urgent reform

The urgency to address education is recognised by President Cyril Ramaphosa. In the 2019 Sona, he listed five tasks that South Africa should focus on, the second priority on his list was education: “our history demands that we should improve the education system and develop the skills that we need now and into the future.”

Commitment to that priority was however lacklustre and the President did nothing in the following years to address the challenges in our education system. But the president was right to say that and it is important to recall that history — 2023 marks 70 years since the introduction of Bantu Education in South Africa.

The National Party and the architects of apartheid had a clear set of attitudes and beliefs about the role of the African in society and the education of the African. The infamous Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 and when speaking about the education of Africans, Hendrik Verwoerd’s thoughts were stinging:

There is no place for the Bantu in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour… it is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community while he cannot and will not be absorbed there… Blacks should never be shown the greener pastures of education, they should know that their station in life is to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

The history of this nation already creates an impetus for our nation to prioritise education, but the global trends in technology have put kerosene on the already raging fire — this is a matter of urgency. 

Large language learning models like ChatGPT are accelerating disruption in the workplace and in education. It comes at the same time that we are witnessing more automation in our retail sector in South Africa.

When you go into a McDonald’s or KFC it is impossible to ignore the proliferation of automation on the ordering process and payment process. It is clear that these fast food outlets will reduce their workforce as more of this technology becomes available. Many low-skill jobs are disappearing at the same time that many high-skill jobs are under threat as well.

The urgency of improving education has always existed, but I cannot stress how these Pirls results are a fire alarm for South African society.

We cannot afford to have 19% of our Grade 4 pupils only able to read at the lowest international benchmark of reading. The lowest level measures whether students can locate and retrieve explicitly stated information, actions, or ideas when reading relatively simple literary texts. Whether they can make straightforward inferences about events, and begin to interpret story events and central ideas.

It also measures whether students can locate and reproduce explicitly stated information from relatively simple informational texts and other formats and begin to make straightforward inferences about explanations, actions, and descriptions.

These are very basic tasks and the rest of the world has 94% of learners in Grade 4 capable of reading at this level. The gap between South Africa and the rest of the world is an eye-watering 74%.

SA education crisis

The problem is not only in reading, it also exists in maths and science. Considering the drop in reading, it is plausible to conclude that those trends are also true in maths and science performance.

South Africa continues to attain lower mathematics and science achievements. In the last Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) from 2019 we had a mathematics score of 389 and a science score of 370 at a Grade 9 level. This data showed that only 13% of mathematics learners and 15% of science learners reached the intermediate benchmark where learners comprehend content and can apply that knowledge.

We need to have over 80% of our pupils reading at the intermediate level and to do that we need to make urgent interventions.

There is no honesty from our government about the state of education in South Africa, there is no political will to fix the education problem, and there is no comprehensive plan to address this problem.

If the president does nothing to address this issue in the coming days, we have to make sure that the next president of South Africa is someone who cares about the education crisis the nation is facing. We must never forget that the education crisis is linked to the skills crisis and linked to the unemployment and welfare crisis.

A failure to deal with this problem will become a crisis much bigger than the rolling blackouts crisis. South Africa cannot become a country with 70% unemployment and we must fight tooth and nail to prevent that future.

A quality education should not be determined by the lottery of birth, it should be accessible to all South Africans, regardless of their background or address. Every South African child should be able to become anything they want to be through education in any school in the country. DM

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  • Michael Shepstone says:

    If Cyril were serious about uplifting standards of education in our country, he would have fired Angie Motshekga ages ago and appointed someone capable! Once again cadre deployment has led to catastrophic results for our children and our nation!

    • Dennis Bailey says:

      Cyril’s not serious about uplifting education standards in our country, the ANC has never been serious about uplifting standards of education in our country, stupid. Stupid people vote for ANC!

      • adewet says:

        Never a truer word spoken and not in jest! This is the serious problem that education is on the back-burner. Students are given bursaries to study but there is no job (employment) on completion of their studies.

  • Nos Feratu says:

    This anc plan to condemn their people to poverty, starvation and other ills is nothing but a form of genocide and those responsible should be in court in The Hague

  • Robert Pegg says:

    I agree with all that is said in this article. All sensible people must understand that education is the corner stone of a country and its future. Improvement in education should be treated with urgency, the same as improvement in the electricity supply. Unfortunately, we are living with crisis management in most levels of government services.

  • Yes!! At last someone has the guts to say out loud what some of us have been thinking secretly for some time : that the current government is determined to keep the majority of our citizens uneducated, unable to read, think, reason for themselves and therefore easily controlled and dictated to. And why? For votes! No sensible, thinking, reasoning South African could possibly be intending to vote for the ANC next year, after what they have put this country through in the last 10 years, and its getting worse by the day. When this uncomfortable, insidious thought started to creep into my mind over the last few years, as I watched the rapidly deteriorating state of public education, I kept saying to myself, ” No, never! Not the ANC. The party that liberated our children from the evils of Bantu education? The party that based our constitution on The Freedom Charter? Equal education for all??” But tragically Musi Maimane is right, things have gone horribly, horribly wrong. We have lost our focus, our vision, for the education of our children as in so many areas of governance and government. I just pray God that its not too late to start all over again. Nkosi sikelele iAfrika!

  • Rob vZ says:

    Until you confront and break up the teacher’s trade union (syndicate), we will not see improvement in education. No accountability. No performance review. Principal positions for cash.

  • Rebecca Pursell-Gotz says:

    This is a very interesting article – but are we ok with using this platform for election campaigning?

  • Bert Kir says:

    While not denying the overall evils of bantu education, I wonder if there are comparative statistics from that era ?

    In the mid 1970’s I had the occasion to view English literature assignments written by matrics at Mamelodi Tech. The books were Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” . I remember being impressed with the quality of both questions and answers. Certainly in many cases better than I could have produced.

    Another instance of an inherited system that just needed to be expanded instead of destroyed…?

    • John Nicolson says:

      Very interesting, Mr Kir. I have long believed that the actual content of Bantu Education was sound and of good quality, up to standard 8 (grade 10) – including maths instruction.
      You have confirmed this belief, up to matric level. As you say, the system should have been adopted and adapted to current desperate needs. But no, the new rulers simply shut down quality institutions such as teacher-training and nurses-training colleges – replacing them with confirmed failures such as Outcomes-based Education which effectively incapacitated SA’s children for 15 years.

  • Ian McClure says:

    This is a national tragedy.
    By manipulating populist ( vote-winning ) union activity , so that teachers are frequently absent , cadres are deployed , and good headmaster and inspectors are threatened with violence ( TIA ) these young people are now victims subjected to Verwoerdian type drivel ( write on the board, and learners copy ), posing as education.
    ( A notable comment a few years ago – which may warrant investigation – made by a N KZN educational department head deployee was that the very poor pass rate in maths and science was because ” whites had made these subjects so difficult ” . It sounds very plausible ANC deflection of accountability . )

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
    Nelson Mandela

    The desire for equality must never exceed the demands of knowledge.

  • Willem Jardine Jardine says:

    SA is running out of standards we can be measured against and shown to have failed. Now Pirls reveals we are educating our children to be illiterate – presumably to find employment in a failed economy (for which there is ample evidence that it was stolen from them), to which they have functional illiteracy to offer. Pre-1994 we could justifiably blame Apartheid and white people who benefitted from its systemic entrenchment – including white people abhorred its evil. But three DECADES later, can we blame anyone but the trough-fattened beneficiaries of ANC cadre deployment for our illiteracy debacle? Or did I miss a judicial commission or two into the failure of our education system? How can SA justify a President who is overtly intelligent, eloquent, and of abundant financial means to take to any public podium to boast of South Africa’s “progress” while our children struggle to annunciate words that they do not understand in any of our official languages? If, Mr President, you are possessed of a morsel of integrity, ought not your appropriate public response to the doomsday of our illiteracy crisis be to hang your head in abject shame while tearing asunder your Armani suit as you and your “Cabinet of Curiosities” shuffle off the public stage? For God’s sake, Sir, these are OUR children and the ultimate expression of the legacy we leave in our wake! I believe I have become like them. I have no words – or at least none that make any damned sense!

  • Trevor Forbes says:

    Excellent article! The initial problem is the political will and organisation to oust the ANC at the next General Election. For that, the political opposition parties need to coalesce around a strong leader with exactly the vision portrayed by Mmusi. The current fragmentation of opposition looks set to deliver an ANC government by default. I implore all opposition politicians to take note and rise to a historical opportunity. A national coalition of opposition to the ANC is surely worth putting aside individual political ambition for the good of all South Africans. As Mmusi eloquently identifies, time is not on the side of South Africa.

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