Unemployment, inequality and poverty are often mentioned as the main issues the government of South Africa should urgently attend to.
We know there is no silver bullet to solve all problems, but the single underlying problem we urgently need to attend to is our education system. The systemic problems of our education system are not sufficiently acknowledged by politicians. In 2017 we had a decline of 9% (numbering 40 000) in the number of matric passes. The best explanation for this I have read is that either more learners are dropping out of school early or are being held back. This is proved by the fact that those provinces (Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KZN) showing an increase in their pass rates, also show a dramatic decline in the actual numbers writing matric (18% decline in numbers in both the EC and Limpopo). Many different calculations have been made around the real matric pass rate, also some taking into account those that fall out along the way. The bottom line is, however, that more than 50% of youths end up with no matric or any vocational or technical training.
The suspicion that the problem starts in the very early school years was proved to be correct by the results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading and Literacy report, which shows that 78% of Grade 4 children who were tested could not read for meaning in any of the 11 languages of the country. The results for maths are no better. Maths performance has declined to an alarming level. In the 2013 Annual National Assessments, the average mark pupils in Grade 3 received was 49%; in Grade 6, it was 38%; and in Grade 9, it was 13%.
The number of matrics who wrote maths in 2017 declined by more than 200 000. Only 51.9% of the 245 103 learners who wrote mathematics received a mark of more than 30%. This is an improvement of 0.08% on the 2016 results. But if you look at the raw numbers, you find that in 2017 there was a decline of more than 8 000 learners with a mark higher than 30%, compared to 2016. A score of 30% can hardly be described as indicating “mastery” of the subject.
Given the figures above, it is difficult to see how we can tackle the problems of inequality, unemployment and poverty without tackling the problems in the education system. It is often said that the economy should grow to create jobs, that we should place more emphasis on industrialisation and beneficiation. The modern economy requires advanced skills and knowledge. Even an occupation like farming is practised in a highly technical and sophisticated environment. Education is central not only to creating technology and its applications, but also to managing and using technology.
Frederik Nel (15 January 2018)