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Don’t blame Covid-19 for the reading catastrophe revealed by Pirls — blame our education system


Jonathan Molver is the founding Director of Proteus, which works with government, the private sector and civil society to build stronger, equitable education systems. He was previously the South Africa Country Director of the nonprofit Education Partnerships Group. He began his career as a teacher in Emalahleni and was later principal of King Solomon Academy in London, one of the UK’s highest-performing schools.

If anything, the pandemic ripped an already gaping hole open a little wider — and ought to have highlighted for us the root cause of our low outcomes — a weak and failing education system currently incapable of delivering quality education to all learners in South Africa.

This week, the results for the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021 assessment were released. This is an international assessment and research project designed to measure reading performance, and is a helpful benchmark when considering the standards of reading — and education in general — in comparison to other countries.

It emerged that 81% of Grade 4 children in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language. Put differently — only 19 out of every 100 Grade 4 children in our country can read for meaning in any language. Of the 57 countries which took the assessments, South Africa’s scores were the lowest.

The problem in South African education is reading. If our children can’t learn to read, then they can’t in turn read to learn. If they can’t read to learn, they are unlikely to pass matric, which significantly reduces their chances of employment. It’s important that we continue to use reading scores as a proxy for the general health of our education system.

But the problem in South African education also isn’t reading. And we won’t improve reading scores in South Africa by trying to improve reading scores.

As development economist Lant Pritchett puts it, “if your bicycle tyre has a hole, pumping in more air won’t do much good. This isn’t because you don’t need air in the tyre, it is because you have to fix the hole first, and then add the air. Pumping more books, teachers or more training into existing systems is just a palliative measure.”

We won’t improve reading scores in South Africa by increasing the reading budget, introducing a better curriculum, providing teacher training, and rolling out a national reading assessment. We need to find the hole in the tyre and fix that first.

Some would suggest that the pandemic is the puncture. There’s no doubt that school closures, illness, difficulty in returning to school and rotational timetables all led to massively reduced contact time and highly limited learning opportunities.

The relatively low decline in reading scores for English and Afrikaans children compared to others is indicative of how the pandemic only further served to widen the socioeconomic divide, with those from privileged households having access not only to online learning during the pandemic, but likely tutoring and various catch-up interventions post-pandemic as well. 

The impact of the pandemic is real, and learning recovery plans and “Back on Track” programmes are absolutely fundamental to improving learner outcomes.

But to suggest that Covid-19 created the cavity in our education system would be misleading, unfair and untrue. The pandemic is not the reason reading outcomes are as low as they are.

It is true that before the pandemic, levels were improving. Between 2006 and 2016 the number of Grade 4 children who couldn’t read for meaning improved from 87% to 78%. But, at that pre-Covid rate of progress, we’d have to wait until 2096 before all of our children could read for meaning.

It’s important to remember that these scores were staggeringly low.

Our reading performance was among the worst of the 50 countries that took the Pirls assessment. In 47% of grade 4 classrooms across the country, not a single learner could read in their home language and make inferences – leading to half of our schools across the country being described as “cognitive wastelands”.

If anything, the pandemic ripped an already gaping hole open a little wider — and ought to have highlighted for us the root cause of our low outcomes — a weak and failing education system currently incapable of delivering quality education to all learners in South Africa.

If we are going to achieve the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 goal of 90% of learners in Grade 3, 6, 9 and 12 passing literacy and numeracy, we have to tackle the issues of accountability, leadership and capacity.

We need to ensure that learner outcomes feature prominently in the performance targets of teachers, middle and senior leaders, principals and provincial officials.

But this is just a start. These outcomes need to be tied to processes like the school evaluation process and school improvement plans. To ensure that schools can set and meet realistic targets, we need valid, reliable and accurate data at a circuit and district level that officials can readily access and utilise to deliver targeted support with their limited resources, and then follow up with rigorous monitoring and evaluation.

And then, as argued before, ALL in the system should be held accountable — from the classroom to national government.

Our system needs leaders, too. No school (or organisation for that matter) can outperform its leader. South Africa — due to shrinking budgets, retirement rates and a lack of adequate training — not only has a shortage of leaders, but a shortage of effective, qualified leaders. We need to strengthen school leadership by implementing professional qualification standards for principals, providing our principals with rigorous training and support, and reforming principal recruitment policies and processes.

Our education system, at every level, may currently be unable to deliver quality education for all learners — but that doesn’t mean that the people working within the system are unwilling.

I have had the privilege of partnering with many dedicated and deeply caring officials who work tirelessly and without recognition to strengthen the system and improve the life chances of our young people. They are often overworked, underpaid, under-resourced and undervalued. Their knowledge of the system, and the improvements it requires, runs deep — and their appetite for collaboration and support is abundant.

Critically, we need to align and mobilise the efforts of the private sector and civil society to provide this. Government has a role to play here too, in creating the regulatory conditions that incentivise and motivate the private sector to act.

So, how do we improve reading outcomes in South Africa?

Firstly, we need to stop blaming things like Covid, teacher shortages and the curriculum for our poor outcomes. We have a deep systemic issue that needs fixing, and we need to focus our time, energy and resources on this if we’re going to see improvements.

Central to strengthening the system is improving accountability and strengthening school leadership. Without rigorous accountability and strong leadership, we will remain trapped in a cycle of underperformance.

Finally, we need to act together, private and public, to improve our children’s hopes of a better future. I was at a conference last week where a business leader suggested that “as paying customers, surely the private sector has a right to determine what’s on the menu”.

This metaphor captures a consumerist and entitled mentality that continues to divide us, when what we need to be is united. As citizens of South Africa, we shouldn’t be consumers, but investors and partners.

We need the private sector and civil society to come alongside the public sector; to acknowledge how big the hole in the tyre is and how difficult it is to fix, and to offer our informed and sustained support to systemic improvement.

This is our country, and this is our future. Let’s work together, private, public and civil society, to make it a brighter one.

Even if that’s by candlelight. DM


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