Busisiwe Mavuso | Why education must be at the core of everything we do
POSTED ON: February 17, 2022 IN by Admin
South Africa has so many urgent issues to address that the most important – the quality of our education system – barely gets a mention in the national discourse despite it being an integral cause of so many of our woes.
The foundation for a harmonious, well-functioning society that is economically competitive is a good education system and our lack of one is a shameful blight on our democratic history. Transforming the quality of our education system would go a long way in addressing many of our problems over the long term, particularly unemployment and a lack of skills in critical areas. Those are the big picture issues but every nook and cranny of society and the economy – and yes, even the public service – would function more efficiently.
Education cannot resolve any of the country’s critical issues on its own – good policy and effective implementation are two other key ingredients – but it is as close to a long-term silver bullet as we can get.
We pump about 7% of our GDP into education but we’re not getting a good return on that investment. Despite its obvious importance, the quality of our education system is so dismal that it’s a frightening prospect for South Africa’s future. The most recent set of alarming statistics flow from a report by the Reading Panel made up of education experts and leaders from civil society and business. It found that literacy in South Africa is at shocking levels, with 78% of grade 4 learners being unable to read for meaning in any language. The state of our maths and science is equally depressing with South African pupils consistently ranking in the bottom rungs of international assessments.
We have to act now. We can’t leave things as they are for future generations.
With SA’s economy teetering in the wake of Covid 19 and the preceding state capture era, some dramatic proposals are on the table. We’re in the midst of making some momentous decisions that will determine the type of country we are to become, from expanding our social welfare system to addressing our energy supply deficit. But education must be at the core of everything we do.
Some may dismiss this with the argument that we have many issues that need immediate, urgent attention and education is a long-term problem that we can deal with later. But without a high-quality education system, none of the other problems will ever be resolved; they will at best be only partially improved.
To fix education, it has to be addressed on a national scale and for this we need a total commitment from government. While government has failed to improve the overall standard of education since 1994, it has had some successes – the major achievement being ensuring that every child has access to primary school education irrespective of poverty status or location. No-fee schools, scholar transport and school nutrition programmes have also been implemented. This is something South Africa can be proud of, particularly given the appalling conditions that apartheid treatment of education bequeathed us, having spent only a fraction of its education budgets on education for the majority of the population.
There are many niche areas where government is working extremely effectively with non-government organisations. Early childhood development is one area where good progress has been made incorporating global best practices into the state education system, though many challenges remain. There are other areas where joint NGO-government initiatives are improving things, from nutrition to upskilling of teachers. The Reading Panel literacy report cites four successful local programmes. All involved teacher upskilling and the provision of additional classroom resources, including graded readers. This led to improvements of 30%-110% in a year of learning, with in-classroom coaching proving twice as effective as centralised training
What we need now is a well-co-ordinated policy that integrates all such successful initiatives, expanding and duplicating processes where appropriate to ensure no areas remain neglected, into a holistic strategy to improve the standard of education from the very bottom to the very top. That needs to incorporate programmes to address all factors ranging from the fourth industrial revolution and other curriculum updates to addressing malnutrition and stunted growth as well ensuring adequate water and electricity services and – yes – let’s finally put an end to the pit-latrine.
Another important element is improving the quality of teachers’ education. Excellence must be rewarded but skills training must be implemented and below par standards must not be accepted. Previous measures intended to upskill teachers have met resistance yet nothing is more important than the education of our children.
The overall objective is to equip every school leaver with the ability to integrate into society with skills that make them directly employable and a pass rate that qualifies them for further education.
Government will find that the private sector is willing to commit vast resources to fixing the country’s education system. Through their BEE trusts and other corporate social investment, big companies already provide massive financial support for education upliftment programmes with decisions usually based on solid research findings.
It’s a question of government commitment, not resources.
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