Schooling gets better

Like Russians under communism, South Africans turn to dark humour to describe “transformation” of our public schools as “teachers pretending to be educators if pupils pretend to be learners”. Beneath lies a proper worry over the state of our schools, the reality of our results, the very worth of passes.

Last week’s release of test results (“annual national assessments”) show lousy language and numeracy levels at schools, and soon matric results will provide our annual angst if bad, disbelief if good. It may be better to look past 2012’s matrics, and onto January’s school starters, for the answers.

Pointing fingers can help in finding today’s answers. In education, they point to the ravages of racial discrimination, the effects of revolutionary ungovernability, teacher indiscipline, hesitant governance, and familial breakdown.  Indeed, where 80% of white households had both parents in 2007 (the latest available figures), for Africans the figure was only 29%, with obvious knock-on negative effect.

Yet despite these real undercurrents, we’re slowly getting things right. For one thing, we’re teaching all children for the first time in our history, and results are improving as we pour more into this. This year SA will use 20% of its national budget (R218bn) on education. At 6,7% of GDP, this is the highest proportion of state expenditure and proportion of GDP of 31 surveyed emerging markets, according to the just-released SAIRR SA Survey. Per capita expenditure of white and black pupils has reached parity after steadily coming down from 1973’s 21:1, a big achievement.

Through urbanisation, and the gradual passing of our youth demographic bubble, we’ve been able to close almost 10% of excess schools the last decade. Literacy among those older than 15 years is at 93%, numeracy 96%. The proportion of people older than 20 without schooling has fallen 41% in just 10 years. The matric (“national senior certificate”) pass rate has climbed to 70%, and test exam papers on the Department of Basic Education’s website show no decrease in standards.

All of which is of a piece with the national long-term “Schooling 2025” programme of bettering teacher qualification, ensuring basic studying aids for children, and jacking up management and infrastructure at schools. Emphasis is increasingly on primary school level, with goals for assessment passes of 90% in both literacy and numeracy at Grades 3 and 6 by then, and intermediate goals including 60% for both by 2014.

Despite the many alarms set off by last week’s results, they show progress rather than defeat. So Grade 3 Literacy results (the subject, not the concept) in 2011 were 35%. They are now at 52%. Numeracy for that grade moved up to 41% from 28%. For Grade 6, Home Language marks went from 28% to 43%.

Still, don’t hold your breath for the matrics of the Class of 2012. Perhaps they’ll equal last year’s 70% pass. Quite probably they too will find that of more than a million of their contemporaries who enrolled for school 12 years back, barely half will have written matric’s equivalent, with only about 80 000 likely to get a decent maths pass.

South Africa’s hopes for academic success and resultant economic skills lie less with them, than with January’s junior intake, and the others who will follow them.

(Published in The Citizen, December 2012)

– By Paul Pereira