Why doesn’t South Africa’s education system work?

by Benjamin de la Fontaine


South Africa is not reknowned for its world-class education.  According to a 2014 survey by Stats SA, 27% of grade six pupils in South Africa cannot read, and almost 50% of grade six pupils struggle with basic maths problems. The country is amost rock-bottom in the quality of its maths and science education and has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world – and it’s not improving. Evidently, something is going wrong at the very foundations of learning in South Africa. What is preventing our children from flourishing at school?


It might come as a surprise to some that the answer is not money.


According to BusinessTech,  South Africa spends more on education than its neighbours, with worse results. A World Bank analysis puts South African education spending at 6.4% of its GDP, almost 2% more than the average country in the European union, which amounts to R6000 per capita spent on education every year. Despite this expenditure, South Africa is outperformed even by other African countries such as Gambia, Kenya and Ghana, each of which spend less than R2500 per capita yearly on education. In South Africa, it seems, great sums of money intended to enrich the education sector are simply going down the drain.


Taking the statistics at face-value, attendance does not appear a major issue for South African schools  – but of those children who do attend school, thousands will drop out before receiving a higher education certificate. The Children’s Institute based at the University of Cape Town reports that enrolment and attendance rates have been steadily improving since 2002, averaging out at 98% in 2014, but adds that high overall attendance rates for the nation “tend to mask the problem of drop-out among older children”. Almost 18% of drop-outs in 2014 cited poor academic performance as their reason for giving up on education, while a smaller percentage expressed no desire to progress past a certain level of education. Each year, thousands of children perform so poorly in the classroom that they can see no value in further learning, and rather elect to simply not continue. In the vast majority of these cases, the blame can be laid on a faulty education system, not inept or lazy kids.


So what is to blame for the state of the education system? Some would point to poor infrastructure and the legacy of Apartheid. In the Eastern Cape alone, two out of every ten learners can be considered in some way deprived based on variables such as classroom overcrowding, access to facilities, and the availability of basic learning and teaching services. There is no doubt that a child’s socioeconomic background has an effect on his or her success in school – children that fall behind a two years or more in school tend to come from households that support extended families and rely on government grants as the main source of income. This alone, however, does not explain the poor performance across the board – amongst children of every race, working or middle-class – compared to children in other countries. There is a more pressing issue holding South African children back, even more pressing than poverty: bad teachers.


Never mind that kids are being taught in schools made of mud in the Eastern Cape; bricks don’t pass on knowledge. It is time to interrogate the person standing up in front of a room full of kids and purporting to teach. Is that person qualified? According to the National Council of provinces, in 2013 there were over 7000 unqualified teachers – that is, with only a Grade 12 certificate – on the education department’s payroll. There were also over 2600 under-qualified teachers in the country, who have completed Grade 12 but only one to two years of tertiary studies. It is illogical to expect people to be able to teach when they have not received adequate education themselves. With expectations this low for the profession, even teachers who are qualified perform to a low standard. In general, the best teachers are to be found in private schools or public schools that charge several thousands in additional monthly fees, as only these schools can afford to have the most skilled educators on their payroll. However, these schools are not affordable and therefore not accessible to the majority of South Africans. Most children will miss out on the enormous benefits of a school with motivated, educated individuals with the ability to effectively communicate skills and knowledge in the classroom.


It is difficult to find a single culprit for the low standard of South African teaching. Institutional malaise has played a part; corruption in government-affiliated teachers’ unions like SADTU has led to manipulation of systems of oversight and review that were designed to address underperformance in schools by singling out bad teachers and administrators, while education department officials have turned a blind eye to poor management in government-funded schools for years. Perhaps the more pressing problem is South African society’s latent antipathy towards education: the effect of four decades of systemic inequality of education enforced by a discriminatory government seguing into two decades of ostensibly-equal-but-still-unequal, shoddily-managed education from a negligent government that fudges the numbers instead of actually taking steps to improve national performance. It is not entirely surprising that so many South Africans have lost faith in the very concept of education institutions; our leaders seem to care less and less about these institutions and the children they serve as time goes by.


With no respect for the value of education, there is no respect for the role of educators, such that the average teacher earns less than the minimum wage for a garbage collector. Garbage – is this how much we think the future of our children is worth? Is this what we think the future of South Africa is worth? One thing’s certain: for every year our education system is left in a state of falling apart, the closer we get to total collapse – of the economy, of society, and of any bright prospects we might have imagined when the constitution was signed into law.





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