‘Silent crisis’ at schools in South Africa – education department responds

 ·13 Apr 2023

The Department of Basic Education has dismissed reports that South Africa’s education system is deteriorating, saying that “the facts” point to improvements against all “relevant” metrics of education system performance.

The department was responding to several reports published by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) in March, in which the group painted a shocking state of affairs in education in South Africa.

Among many notable points made by the reports, the group spoke of a ‘silent crisis’ in local schools, showing that South Africa has one of the worst-performing education systems in the world.

Broadly, the CDE highlighted the following:

  • South Africa is the single biggest learning underperformer relative to GDP per capita among low and middle-income countries.
  • After a year of school, more than 50% of Grade 1 learners don’t know all the letters in the alphabet. 78% of Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in any language.
  • Out of 39 participating countries, South Africa’s Grade 9 learners – on a test designed for Grade 8s – placed 38th (second last) in mathematics proficiency and last place (39th) in science proficiency.
  • Covid-19 lockdowns devastated learning in South Africa (as elsewhere). Experts believe the average 10-year-old knows less than the average 9-year-old before the pandemic.
  • many teachers lack the capabilities to teach better, with the proficiency levels of South African teachers (41%) rank far below that of their peers in Kenya (95%) and Zimbabwe (87%). 79% of Grade 6 maths teachers in the country scored below 60% on a Grade 6 maths test.
  • South Africa has the highest teacher absenteeism rate of all SADC countries, which stood at 10% in 2017.
  • A report by the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU), released in 2015, assessing rural literacy found extensive union involvement in corrupt teacher hiring and promotion processes.
  • Despite findings of criminality, no government official implicated in the 2014-2015′ jobs for cash’ scandals has been prosecuted or suspended.

The shocking state of education in South Africa 

On Thursday (13 April), the department said it had “noted” the reports but broadly dismissed them as a one-sided, inflammatory, political analysis.

Further, it said that work currently being done by the department had already caught up to many of the points raised, adding that the CDE missed an opportunity to give readers an update on the developments within the sector.

“The sector was not invited to respond or at least to provide information on work being done to address the challenges raised in the reports. This means the reports are one-sided and overtaken, in some parts, by work done up to now,” it said.

“Any underlying value in the CDE’s analysis and recommendations on education policy is unfortunately undermined by the strong politically charged stance taken.”

The DBE said that calling president Cyril Ramaphosa a “weak president” and seeking the resignation of DBE minister Angie Motshekga made the publishing of the reports a political move, while terminology, such as likening the corruption within the system to state capture, emphasised this.

“The appropriation of the language of ‘state capture’ into the education space is unfortunate and inappropriate, given that “state capture” has a particular reference to a serious problem our country has experienced, and applying it inappropriately empties it of its value,” it said.

The department also said that much of the CDE reports were based on data published by the department, so it took issue with the group calling it a ‘silent crisis’ when work was clearly being done.

Progress made

While not addressing each point raised by the CDE, the department did speak to some of the sore points and the progress being made.

On the issue of corruption, it said that the department cooperated fully with police investigations of possible criminality and has drafted reforms to school appointment processes which are now contained in the draft Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill.

It offered no comment on the poor performance of learners and teachers, but said that the country has seen increased participation in the country, with essentially universal school attendance for 7 to 15-year-olds.

“Early learning opportunities have been rapidly expanding in recent years: Only 40% of 5-year-olds attended an educational institution in 2002, compared to nearly 90% in 2021,” it said.

It added that the average performance of South African learners has been amongst the fastest improving in the world, according to all three independent international assessments of learning.

“These quality advances have supported consistent improvements in the outcomes of the National Senior Certificate examinations. The percentage of all youths who complete the National Senior Certificate has increased from less than 40% in the early 2000s to over 60%.

“The number of bachelor passes – those qualifying for university entrance – has tripled since 2008. More than 60% of these bachelor passes now come from no-fee schools, which serve children in more vulnerable and rural contexts,” it said.

“The authors of the CDE reports are obviously aware of the record of clear progress in the sector because they do not actually say there has been a decline in the performance of the system. In fact, the reports do acknowledge that South Africa’s performance on all independent international assessments of learning quality improved since the early 2000s.

However, this acknowledgement is in the proverbial “fine print” of the reports, the department said, which makes the negative tone “unsurprising”.

The department said that the CDE reports raise valid points – such as the impact of Covid-19 – but that it “opted for an inflammatory tone, one-sided negative analysis, and a politically charged stance, ultimately missing an opportunity to contribute to a shared agenda for improving education in the future”.

Read: New school certificate for South Africa coming in 2025

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