Poor basic education a vicious cycle


More than 700,000 matriculants across the country began their final exams today, but a significant number of them will not make it to university or even finish with substantial marks.

A report done by the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch Univerisyt found that the problems facing South African schools was more than just the quality of education.  

“The focus of the report was to look at the crisis that we have in education, to figure out why we have it. I think what a lot of people don’t recognise when they look at these matric results is that of 100 children that start school in Grade 1, only 50 will actually make it to matric,” Nicholas Spaull, researcher at the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University, told CNBC Africa on Monday.


“Most of the students will drop out in Grades 10 and 11, [few] will pass and [even fewer] will qualify to go to university. When we talk of the matric results, we really are only speaking about half of the cohort, the other half has already dropped out in Grades 10 and 11.”

Spaull added that the main findings from the report were that educational problems occurred in primary school, where children begin to acquire learning deficits that accumulate over time.

“[There] needs to be a focus on foundational numeracy and literacy in the foundation phase. That’s Grade 1, 2 and 3. We need to look at the capacity of teachers to teach,” said Spaull.

“That’s got to do with what teachers know, how they teach it, and the accountability systems that we have in place in our basic education system. [This is] whether that’s looking at teachers, district officials and provisional officials.”

Matching accountability and capacity are essential for the improvement of the situation. Testing teacher content knowledge of the subjects they are teaching is equally essential. This is as the report noted that some teachers were not able to answer the questions they posed in the classroom.

“The fundamental problem with the education system is that essentially, as shown through research, we actually have two public education systems. One [is a] well-resourced, well-functioning education system which caters to the wealthiest 20 to 25 per cent of students,” Equal Education general secretary Brad Brockman explained.

“Then you have 75 to 80 per cent of [children from poor and working class backgrounds] who are going to schools that are under resourced, underfinanced, where the teachers are not as well qualified and trained. Those schools produce very poor outcomes.”

Brockman added that the education system has begun to perpetuate social inequalities, and unless addressed, a negative cycle would be created. This cycle would create a condition where poor children will continue to access education that does not take them out of poverty.

“Children are not doing mathematics and science, and it’s massive inequalities [of both race and class]. Sixty per cent of white children, of whom 98 per cent pass matric, go on to university. [This is] versus 11 or 12 per cent of black children,” said Graeme Bloch, an education analyst.

“We’re learning that inequality is totally unsustainable. We need to focus on matric teachers but we also need to focus on inequality.”