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Basic Education in South Africa Gets Poor Grades

  • Anita Powell

Pupils of Winnie Ngwekasi Primary School in Soweto study in a classroom in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2009.

Pupils of Winnie Ngwekasi Primary School in Soweto study in a classroom in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2009.

South Africa’s basic education system got a report card this week, and the grades are not good, especially in math. The results have caused an outcry in a nation struggling to overcome decades of inequality and to give services to all citizens.

South Africa’s government tested some 7 million students in 24,000 schools, and this year tested ninth graders for the first time. The conclusion of those tests: Young South African students are being left behind, especially in math.

This year, the average first-grader scored 68 percent on a math test. Her ninth-grade counterpart scored a dismal 13 percent. That first-grader scored 58 percent on a test in her first home language - the ninth-grader, just 43 percent.

Basic education

The department of basic education noted that not all the news is bad: Young students, especially third-graders, appeared to make gains compared to last year. Thirty-seven percent of third-grade math students scored more than 50 percent in the math test this year, compared to 17 percent last year.

But those gains appear to have evaporated by ninth grade, with barely 2 percent of ninth-graders scoring more than 50 percent in math tests.

Basic education department spokesman Panyaza Lesufi said even though the results have been criticized, they show positive developments. He said the results show a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, with poor students scoring well compared to their richer counterparts. He also said the study confirms that school attendance is high and that the school system is becoming more stable.

But he acknowledges not all of the results are so encouraging.

“When you go into the deeper into the actual work in the classrooms, indeed we are deeply, deeply disappointed, because that’s where it matters. You find that the numbers are not tallying," said Lesufi. "Because it’s not only in math, it also includes language, it also includes areas where we believe that learners should be excelling in those particular areas. So we have a combination, or a mixture, emotionally, of good and bad emotions when it comes to the components of the results.”

Deemed unacceptable

The youth league of the ruling African National Congress said it was “appalled” by the results. How can we achieve economic freedom, the league asked, when our future leaders have difficulty reading, writing and counting?

Thabo Kupa, a member of the league’s executive committee, said the league acknowledged the improvements, but said the results were still not satisfying.

“It is disappointing to see a drastic outcome in terms of the grade nine, where only 2 percent of the total people have actually achieved more than 50 percent," said Kupa. "So for us, it’s a call for the minister and the department to really gear up and ensure that there is an improvement at that level. Because our dream and the fight for economic freedom will not be achieved for as long as we improve those outcomes.”

South Africa’s education sector also has been mired in scandal this year. The basic education department was taken to court over accusations it failed to deliver textbooks to students in the poor northern Limpopo province. A clerk was arrested and accused of dumping about 700 of those badly needed books into a river in Limpopo.

Education investment

The nation spends 207 billion rand - about $23 billion in U.S. dollars - to educate an estimated 12 million students. That budget is set to increase in the next fiscal year to 236 billion rand.

Lesufi said the education sector needs more.

“I know many people say if you take the budget of the country, the highest budget goes to education. But it’s not sufficient. The majority of people have underestimated the impact of apartheid and the impact of inequalities in our country, and it comes and manifests itself in different forms," he said. "So even though we get a sufficient chunk out of the budget, it will never be sufficient to deal with the challenges that we have within the education system. So, if I have to ask government, unfortunately, I would have to ask that additional resources should be made available for us.”

South Africa spends a bigger share of its budget on education than do most African nations. But clearly, it’s still not quite making the grade.

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