South African education among world’s worst

The world's premier assessment for reading literacy found 81% of South Africa's Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Education minister belabours the impact of Covid-19 on learning and teaching amid dismal literacy scores.

South Africa accounted for one of the lowest results in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) of 2021, coming in at the bottom of the 50 countries assessed. The 2021 Pirls results revealed that 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language, up from 78% in 2016.

During her department’s budget vote in parliament on Thursday, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga downplayed the meaning of the results and emphasised the impact that Covid-19 has had on teaching and learning, and tried to point out positive outcomes in the report, which include the finding that South African girl children performed better than boy children in Grades 4 and 6. “The devastating effects of Covid-19 on learning and teaching since 2020 continues to be an issue of great concern. We have asked our researchers to analyse the impact of Covid-19 on basic education, the lost ground and the return of the schooling system to its earlier improved trajectory,” she said.

Motshekga said that after the 2016 Pirls results, they came up with a national reading literacy strategy which was launched in 2019 but that Covid-19 stifled its effect. The minister said that they are engaging the treasury to get more funds for the national reading strategy. However, a report by GroundUp states that claims by the department that the strategy was a success are false.

“The learning poverty in 2019 was estimated at 57% in 2019 and post-Covid-19 it was at 70% and in sub-Saharan Africa it was at 86%. Learning poverty is defined as a share of learners who cannot read for meaning at the age of 10. Our Grade 4 girls performed better than boys and it is the same thing as our Grade 6 girls,” Motshekga said.

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The minister highlighted the improvement between the Grade 4 and Grade 6 results as something to be applauded. “The noticeable upward shift between Grades 4, 6 and 9 is an indication that the system self corrects when learners stay longer in schools and retain performance.”

Motshekga took a swipe at detractors by saying that South African learners can read as part of oral performance but they are just not on the required level. “We can confirm that unlike the alarm that is all over, our kids can read in terms of oral performance but what they are not able to do, and not as the only children in the world, is to be able to do all these other skills that are required at a higher level,” she said.

The Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister of basic education, Baxolile Nodada said that the minister and her department have no plans to turn things around. “While South African learners cannot read for meaning, while they attend schools in unsafe environments without food; while they sit in overcrowded classrooms with overworked and under-qualified teachers forced to teach an outdated curriculum; the Department has no plans in place to turn the situation around to save this generation. They make many promises but there’s little actual impact on the ground,” Nodada said.

The study found that girl children were better at reading for meaning at Grades 4 and 6. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

Meanwhile, the MEC for Education in the Western Cape David Maynier said the loss in teaching time is to blame for the national decline of the Pirls results. “The drop in scores is in line with the severe learning losses caused by school closures and rotating timetables during the pandemic,” said Maynier. The Western Cape achieved a Pirls score of 363, the highest out of all nine provinces and higher than the national score (288). “We have a variety of programmes being implemented in our province to improve learning outcomes, so we will be closely analysing these to see what is contributing to higher scores and should be expanded, and which need some more work in order to shift the needle,” said Maynier.

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As showcased by the Pirls results, there still remains a significant gap in literacy and reading levels between pupils from rural areas compared to those in urban areas. “The national Pirls results show that the average Grade 4 pupil in 2021 is about 80% of a year behind the average Grade 4 pupil in 2016. I think we can see that the pandemic and school closures affected no-fee schools the most, mainly because there was no way for learning to continue while schools were closed,” said Nic Spaull, an education expert. This, according to Spaull, is in contrast to fee-charging schools which could adapt to online classes or learning from home. “The Western Cape has the smallest percentage of no-fee schools in the country. Rural provinces have a much higher percentage of no-fee schools than the more urban provinces,” added Spaull

English and Afrikaans schools did not experience a decline between 2016 and 2021 compared to most African-language schools, according to Spaull. He has listed a range of interventions,which include the use of teacher assistants, rolling out anthologies of graded readers to all Grade 1-3 learners, training of teachers and equipping them with comprehensive workbooks, and the use of teacher coaches.

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