Instead of providing much needed opportunities, South Africa’s ailing education system is keeping children from poor households at the back of the job queue and locking families into poverty for another generation.
By the age of eight, school children from the most affluent 20 percent of South Africa’s population are already significantly out-performing children from poorer backgrounds, according to new research by the Social Policy Research Group at Stellenbosch University.
The study, "Low Quality Education as Poverty Trap", found that the schooling available to children in poor communities is reinforcing rather than challenging the racial and economic inequities created by South Africa’s apartheid-era policies.
Using newly available data sets, including those linking information on income with numeracy skills, the report analyzed how low-quality tuition in the post-apartheid education system is perpetuating "exclusion and marginalization".
Money not enough
The government allocated R190 billion (US$28 billion) or 21 percent of its 2011/12 budget to education, but 80 percent is spent on personnel and the remainder is not enough to supply thousands of schools in mainly poor areas with basic requirements like electricity and textbooks.
Yet the top 20 percent of state schools - which largely correspond to historically white schools and charge fees to compensate for insufficient public funding - enjoy adequate facilities and attract the best teachers.
South Africa's status as one of the wealthiest countries on the continent has not helped its educational performance - the poorest 25 percent of students ranked 14th out of 15 sub-Saharan countries in reading performance, and 12th for mathematics, according to the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality surveys of 2000 and 2007.
"When seen in regional context, South Africa grossly under-performs, given that it has more qualified teachers, lower pupil-to-teacher-ratios and better access to resources," the report on the study noted.
Nomusa Cembi, spokesperson for the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU), whose nearly 250,000 members make it the country's largest public sector union, said many teachers had received an inferior education as a result of apartheid's "Bantu" education system, which was deliberately designed to disadvantage black learners and only ended in 1994 when a new democratic government came into power.
There are a host of other problems besetting schools in poor areas. According to Yoliswa Dwane, spokesperson for the education advocacy group, Equal Education, over 2,000 schools had no piped water supply, 3,600 lacked electricity, and over 90 percent were without libraries or a functioning laboratory.
Poorly trained teachers
SADTU and other teachers’ unions have opposed national calls for education to become an essential service, which would prevent strike action. In August 2010 a teachers' strikeclosed schools across the country for three weeks, contributing to a public perception that SADTU and some of its members did not have learners' interests at heart.
"The focus needs to be on teachers' development," said Cembi. "We've had changes in the curriculum since the new [post-apartheid] era, but we find not much focus on training teachers."
Many teacher training colleges were closed in the late 1990s after new legislation required them to merge with existing higher education institutions. Plans to transform the training colleges into university-level institutions have not materialized, leaving thousands of teachers without any specialized training.
In recent years, SADTU has called for the reopening of training colleges because the shortage of teachers has meant that some schools in poor and rural areas have had to hire individuals who do not meet the official requirement of holding a teaching diploma.
According to the report, insufficient teacher knowledge is a problem, with many teachers scoring poorly in basic reading and mathematics tests.
A large number of changes to the national curriculum, beginning with the 1997 adoption of Outcomes Based Education, many subsequent adjustments, and the final decision -announced in 2010 - to scrap it, have further stressed an already failing system.
The way forward
Equal Education's Dwane said the debate needed to move past "blaming teachers" and towards how to achieve a "serious commitment to a national education programme that would spell out what needs to be done over the next 20-30 years".
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Such a plan would have to include an assessment of existing teacher knowledge, followed by a national teacher training programme, but Dwane stressed the need to consider factors beyond teacher knowledge, including teacher motivation, and a lack of community and parental involvement.
Her view was backed up by the Stellenbosch study, which identified the lack of regular and meaningful student assessments and feedback to parents as another major weakness in the education system.
"For the parents to know how their child is performing, and by proxy to know how the teachers are performing, is very helpful," said Ronelle Burger, one of the study's lead researchers. "Very few top-down measures can be as effective as getting the people who are affected to act to correct the problems."
The researchers found that the job prospects of school leavers were determined not only by the number of years of education attained, but the quality of that education.
“The labour market is at the heart of inequality, and central to labour market inequality is the quality of education,” they concluded.
“Policies that address inequality by intervening in the labour market will have limited success as long as the considerable pre-labour market inequalities in the form of differential school quality persist.”