Can we risk losing a generation of skilled leaders?

Of the South African learners who started in public schools in 2002, less than half made it to matric and only 34.5 percent finished with a school-leaver’s certificate.

Photo credit: IOL

If the student protests this year seemed too disruptive, be grateful that school children don’t organise strikes; their numbers are greater and their situation is more desperate. They have been abandoned.

According to World Bank data, only 74 percent of males and 76 percent of females who began Grade 1 in 2012 are expected to complete Grade 7. This is known as the survival rate to last grade of primary education and in South Africa it increased from around 65 percent in 1970 to a peak of 77 percent in 2001.

There is no statistically modelled data available on the survival rate to Grade 12, but with the gross numbers we can get a rough idea. According to the Department of Basic Education there were 1 261 827 pupils enrolled in grade 1 in 2002 but only 556 445 enrolled in grade 12 by 2013. The matric pass rate that year was 78.2 percent.

Of the South African learners who started in public schools in 2002, less than half made it to matric and only 34.5 percent finished with a school-leaver’s certificate.

Measuring quality of education is especially difficult due to the lack of data available. In 2015 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked schools across 76 of the world’s most advanced countries. South Africa was ranked 75th — ahead of only Ghana.

A 2014 World Bank report falls back on a 2007 dataset compiled by the Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality. It shows that 27 percent of test takers in South Africa performed below the lowest performance benchmark in reading, compared to an average of 17 percent for other countries. In mathematics, 40 percent of test takers in South Africa fell below the lowest performance benchmark, compared to an average of 32 percent for other countries.

According to the WEF Global Competitiveness Report 2016/17, South Africa’s quality of primary education ranks 126th out of the 138 countries studied. The quality of the education system ranks 134th and quality of maths and science education comes stone last. These results need to be taken with a pinch of salt as the ranking is based on a survey of executive perceptions in each country.

It would be inaccurately easy to put these dismal results down to lack of finance. South Africa’s largest budget allocation — 15.6 percent of all money spent by government — goes to basic education. Government expenditure on education per student is 17.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita — higher than the median for Upper Middle Income countries. Yet, South Africa’s pupil to teacher ratio is almost double the median for Upper Middle Income countries.

The barriers to quality education in South Africa are not due to limited resources; they are caused by poor management, damaging relationships with the South African Democratic Teachers Union, misappropriation of funds, lack of accountability and insufficient public awareness.

Schoolgoers are being robbed of their education and we are being robbed of their talent.

The years 2015 and 2016 have brought an awakening of public will in South Africa calling for accountability in government service. While it hasn’t been pretty, this cross-sectional involvement of independent research organisations, trade unions, NGOs, civil society groups, business, government institutions and concerned individuals is what keeps us on track.

In 2017 these efforts need to turn to basic education or we risk losing a generation of skilled and representative leaders.


This article was originally published in The Business Report

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