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Locked doors and lost dreams — SA’s journey towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 — education


Tara Roos is a political analyst, policy writer, and the founder of the Participation Project. She is currently serving as the Unesco youth ambassador for SDG4.

George Washington Carver said education is the key that unlocks the golden door to freedom, yet for many South Africans, that door seems unjustly shut. 

With a staggering 31.9% unemployment rate in the third quarter of 2023 and over 50% of the unemployed lacking the bare minimum of a matric certificate, as per Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), not only will the door remain shut for the foreseeable future, but the cycle of poverty and limited access to opportunities for many South Africans will continue to persist. This educational disparity not only hampers individual prospects but also casts a shadow over our nation’s potential for economic growth and social advancement.

As a member of the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) new cohort of youth ambassadors for Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), titled inclusive, equitable, and quality education, I find myself at the crossroads of hope and concern when evaluating South Africa’s progress towards this crucial goal by 2030. The aspirations set for equitable, accessible, and quality education seem more like a distant dream amidst the disarray of our country’s educational landscape. The systemic disparities in resources, infrastructure, and teaching quality leave us with a fragmented picture of South Africa’s educational future.

Read more in Daily Maverick: We can only fix youth unemployment if we correct our broken education system

SDG4 outlines seven crucial aims: ensure universal access to quality primary and secondary education for all children; promote early childhood development; provide equal opportunities in technical and higher education; increase relevant skills for employment; eliminate gender disparities; achieve universal literacy; and instil knowledge for sustainable development and global citizenship. There are three key areas of implementation: creating effective learning environments, expanding the number of scholarships for children from vulnerable communities, and substantially increasing the supply of qualified teachers.

However, South Africa’s current infrastructure remains dilapidated, despite access to quality education being a fundamental human right enshrined in South Africa’s Bill of Rights. The government is failing to create conducive learning environments. Crumbling schools, scant resources, and overcrowded classrooms impede the promise of quality education. Early childhood development struggles, leaving many children ill-prepared for primary schooling and later further education.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa making progress towards early childhood development goals, education officials say

The statistics reveal the harsh reality of many South African children. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) reports that 8 in 10 South African children struggle to read by age 10, while dropout rates in 2021 showed nearly 3% at age 15 and almost 9% at age 17. Shockingly, of the 1.1 million students who started Grade 1 in 2010, only 755,981 made it to the National Senior Certificate in 2022, according to a report by StatsSA.

Despite a substantial overall budget allocation of over R30-million tabled by the Department of Basic Education for the 2023/24 medium-term expenditure framework, the department has continuously fallen short of sparking transformative change, exposing deep-rooted systemic flaws that urgently demand a solution. 

Beyond numbers, the lack of quality education profoundly affects millions of real lives, closing yet another door for those who desperately need one opened. Similar to the pre-1994 Bantu education system, the current disparity in access to education casts a shadow on countless futures, shaping destinies and depriving individuals of essential tools to thrive. This denial of the fundamental right to quality education not only hinders learning but also diminishes livelihoods, dignity, and the capacity to contribute meaningfully to society. Its repercussions span generations, emphasising the urgent need to ensure equitable, quality education for everyone.

As the clock ticks toward 2030, South Africa finds itself distanced from the noble aspirations outlined in SDG4. Despite some strides and good intentions, the current reality of crumbling infrastructure, educational disparities, and systemic inadequacies presents an immense disparity between the envisioned goals and the current state of affairs. South Africa finds itself at a pivotal moment. The path toward SDG4 appears daunting, yet it holds a promise of hope. It beckons for unified action, innovative approaches, and unwavering dedication to secure every child’s right to quality education. DM


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  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    A terrible indictment of our political leadership that dooms two generations since 1994 to a lifetime of poverty. Quality motivated teachers can achieve better outcomes despite poorly resourced teaching environments. Teaching children basic literacy and numeracy by age 10 does not require hi-tech or sophisticated teaching aids. But unmanageable class sizes will defeat any efforts to improve early learning outcomes. But within every school and community there are pupils and parents whose literacy and numeracy skills can be brought in to augment the role of the class teacher. It requires some lateral thinking and creative leadership to tackle this problem head on. As the PIRLS results have proved, a child who cannot read, write and acquire basic numeracy by age 10 is basically uneducable.

  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    DM how did this flagrant scammer get to post his advert on this platform?

  • John Kannemeyer says:

    The sad part about this is the quality of teaching in public schools is steadily deteriorating due to lack of political will to maintain decent facilities and the general decline of discipline within the classroom both from a teacher and learner perspective. The government and the unions have a lot to answer for in facilitating this disaster.

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