Defend Truth


A national crisis — illiterate 10-year-olds with five years of school behind them


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.

With the majority of South Africa’s education budget going to teacher salaries after public sector wage increases, it’s difficult to see how reading resources, teaching assistants and the implementation of assessments will be prioritised for the young children who critically need it.

Last year, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) revealed that 81% of 10-year-olds in South Africa could not read for meaning. That four out of every five children in our country cannot read after five years of formal schooling is an unmitigated disaster and a national crisis.

The Reading Panel 2030 was convened in 2022, and has advocated for a complete overhaul of the education system in order to prioritise the effective teaching and learning of reading. Last week, the panel (along with key players in the education and reading sector) gathered to discuss the outcomes of the latest report, and what is required to continue driving improvement in outcomes across the country.

While good progress is being made in pockets, our country needs a clear strategy, underpinned by budget, and supported with rigorous measurement and accountability if every child is going to learn to read.

Leaders, teachers and parents need up-to-date, valid, accurate and reliable data on their children’s reading performance so that collectively we can learn, iterate and identify new ways to improve learner’s literacy levels.

Ivo Gomes, then Secretary of Education and now mayor of Sobral, Brazil, presented at the Reading Panel conference last week. Upon taking office and being presented with the magnitude of the crisis, he shared his astonishment: “How is it possible that after five years at school, a child still does not know how to read!”

Under his leadership, Sobral, Brazil, shot up from 1,390 in the municipal rankings to number one in eight years, with 100% of children literate for the past three.

So how did they do it?

According to Gomes, “we have reached this position because this is a 23-year-old project that has surpassed changes in mayors and secretaries of education. People think it’s magic and it’s not. It is persistence and a lot of hard work”.

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

To fully appreciate the dramatic turnaround, we need to go back to 1997, when the newly elected mayor implemented multiple reforms to improve the Brazilian education system. Enrolment numbers and infrastructure had improved, but children still weren’t learning.

A diagnostic assessment conducted in 2020 revealed just this, with 48% of second graders in Sobral unable to read. Instead of keeping the results to themselves, though, the municipal government shared them with the community, and set a goal of 100% literacy for children by the end of the second year of primary school.

Just three years later, an assessment showed that more than 91% of children completing their second year of primary school, could read.

Reforms included clear targets

A number of reforms were fundamental to this turnaround, including setting clear targets; improving management at a school and department level; increasing school autonomy and responsibility; introducing a new pedagogy; training teachers; and increasing financial incentives to school staff.

According to Gomes, the most critical reform was the introduction of an externally implemented and moderated standardised reading assessment, conducted twice every year. These assessments ensured that the education system was constantly learning, iterating, and identifying new ways to improve learner’s literacy levels.

The situation in South Africa is a long way from the success story of Sobral. 81% of 10-year-olds could not read for meaning in the 2021 PIRLS assessment. The number of 10-year-olds who could not read at all doubled from 13% in 2016, to 26%. Teachers are retiring, enrolments are increasing, budgets are shrinking. There isn’t a clear national strategy, budget or implementation plan in place, yet.

When it was set up in 2022, the Reading Panel 2030 made four headline recommendations for a system-wide overhaul to improve reading, which, it should be noted, are completely consistent with the approach taken in Sobral:

  1. Implement a universal standardised assessment of reading at primary school level;
  2. Move beyond slogans and symbolic campaigns to a costed and budgeted plan to fix the reading crisis in the country;
  3. Provide a standard minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation Phase classrooms (grades R-3); and
  4. Implement a university audit of pre-service teacher education programmes.

So how are we getting on, and what do we still need to do if every four-year-old in the country is going to be able to read by 2030?

Pockets of hope?

It’s encouraging to note that there are pockets of hope. Organisations like Funda Wande and Zazi iZandi are demonstrating that gains are possible at scale and in communities.

In Limpopo, Funda Wande developed a teacher assistant (TA) programme “with the aim of developing a model to effectively select, train and support unemployed youth from the community to assist teachers within a structured programme”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Still no national plan to address SA’s reading crisis as percentage of children who can read for meaning declines

Each teacher on the programme was assigned a TA for a full year. An evaluation of the programme has found that overall, learners in schools with Funda Wande TAs are around half a standard deviation ahead of learners in the control school.

Zazi iZandi leveraged Teacher Assistants to build phonological awareness and letter-sound recognition in Grade R and 1 classrooms across Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. TA stipends were covered by the Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI) and Social Employment Fund, with top-up funding from The DG Murray Trust. By the end of Grade 1, the proportion of learners that met the benchmark had increased from 29% to 42%.

Both of these initiatives have the potential for scale, given their close alignment to existing government employment initiatives, and the relevance and adaptability of the materials and content they’ve provided.

In addition to encouraging progress being made by civil society, proactive provinces such as the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape are working with partners to implement evidence-based strategies to support teachers and teach reading — with encouraging results. These partners are proving that with leaders who can lead, teachers who can teach, high-quality resources and safe, nurturing learning environments, progress is possible.

But there’s a lot more to do if we’re going to make radical gains.

National plan with context and capability

We need a national plan that is grounded in evidence and built for the classroom. Too many plans in our country fail because of insufficient consideration of context, capacity and capability. National government has been working on a strategy — we’re eagerly anticipating its release, and hope that it is robust, so that civil society and the private sector can align and coordinate our efforts to support it.

As the panel has outlined, the strategy will need to be founded on a budget that prioritises the teaching and learning of reading. With the majority of the education budget going to teacher salaries after public sector wage increases, it’s difficult to see how reading resources, teaching assistants and the implementation of assessments will be prioritised.

It’s clear that if we’re going to allocate sufficient funds for reading, we need to be more efficient with our spending — tighter accountability and performance-related pay increases would be a tremendous start.

Finally, as in Sobral, strategies, budgets and implementation plans need to be supported with clear targets and robust monitoring mechanisms. Number one on the list here needs to be low-stakes, standardised, regular assessments that provide diagnostic data to drive teaching and learning.

We simply cannot afford to continue to fly blind when it comes to teaching our children to read. Leaders, teachers and parents need up-to-date, valid, accurate and reliable data on their children’s reading performance so that collectively we can learn, iterate and identify new ways to improve learner’s literacy levels.

Although there’s a long way to go, the progress is encouraging. Gomes himself congratulated us on our ambition to have every 10-year-old reading for meaning by 2030. Although he did pose the question — why by 10, and not by six?

And I’m inclined to agree. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Proudly brought to you by the anc

  • Lynda Tyrer says:

    The anc prefer uneducated masses easier to control. However if they stopped their race based attitude there are many fully qualified unemployed who could assist with these kids who cannot read and get paid hourly, retired teachers should get preference.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Thank you ANC. I believe this has been purposely done to ensure that the masses are uneducated and therefore more able to be manipulated. The last thing they, the ANC, want is a large population of educated and thinking citizens.

  • Allrite Jack says:

    Part of the problem will be that the current teachers will themselves, largely have gone through the 30 years of failed ANC education. Hence the semi-learned are trying to teach the unlearned & the evidence shows they are failing miserably. I haven’t followed this subject, but I assume thousands of White teachers will have been retrenched to make way for affirmatives??

  • Trenton Carr says:

    We have applicants to teach grd 12 Maths and Science, they seem to have adequate marks, but when tested with grd 10 maths, they just make shit up.
    These are the types of people in schools teaching your kids now.

  • Tony B says:

    Hey Jonathan, surely this cannot be correct!
    I make this statement because on 7 January 2024, I read an article in this very publication by Mr Elijah Mhlanga.
    In the article Mr Mhlanga states that the “SA’s schooling system promotes excellence at every level, despite what the doom-mongers say”
    Surely Mr Mhlanga knows what he is “talking” about!
    After all he is the Chief Director for Communication at the Department of Basic Education.

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