Skip to main content

The ones who do not get to protest

Friday 21 May 2021
In the past few months there has been a recurrence of protests across South Africa’s universities over free education. We see the headlines; we hear the voices on the news.  I am in no way diminishing the importance of this topic but I do want to draw our attention to those that are unseen and unheard. Those who do not get to protest.  Those who are not eligible for university entry because they got lost from the education system along the way. 

South Africa celebrated its annual matric results earlier this year.  Spirits were high due to a 76.2% pass rate.  This is 5% lower than previous years but not the “bloodbath” Basic Education minister, Angie Motshekga, expected. While we should be celebrating with these resilient, young individuals who overcame many challenges in the education system, especially during the school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we should pause and check the vitals of our education system.  When we do, we realise that the system is still not well and that these celebrations are short-lived.  

There is no lack of evidence on how the South African education system is falling short.  Remember the eye opening Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results of 2016 that indicated that 78% of South African Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning?  Many of the causes of this are rooted in the inequalities in the education system.  

Five years down the line we are not doing much better.  Covid-19 is partially to blame but it would be more accurate to say that it has just exacerbated and highlighted the previously existing inequalities.  Save the Children International’s report on the hidden impact of Covid-19 on child education analysed data from 46 countries.  The results indicate that the most marginalised and vulnerable groups of children have been particularly effected, e.g. children with disabilities and those from poorer households. Four in five children reported at least one obstacle to learning during school closures, with the greatest ones being lack of support or not understanding their homework. Of the children surveyed, 84% felt that their learning was affected, with 66% feeling that they were learning “a little” and 18% stating that they learnt “nothing at all” while being out of school.  It is important to note that children reported an increase in negative feelings since the onset of the pandemic, with the highest proportion of children reporting an increase in negativefeelings in East and Southern Africa (87%).

Learning has been tough during national lockdown and experts predict that it will take our children years to catch up the learning that was lost.  That catch up will happen in a very challenging environment.  Closer to home, two noteworthy reports came out recently.  These reports unpack the inequalities in our education system and reasons for school drop outs. 

The Amnesty International report on inequality in education paints a concerning picture.  They report that nationally only 22% of households have a computer and 10% an internet connection.  As learning went online during lockdown only the more affluent could access this.  Learners in schools with poor infrastructure were more affected than those at schools with better infrastructure.  Amnesty International state that “A child’s experience of education in South Africa still very much depends on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the colour of their skin.” These inequalities in the system contributes to school drop outs.  

DGMT’s Zero Dropout report states that poverty and inequality remain the strongest underlying causes of dropout. Four out of ten learners who start school will drop out before reaching matric.  Learners with poorer access to resources and less support will experience more disruption in their education. They argue that gaps in foundational learning can catch up to learners in later grades.  Additionally, they build on the PIRLS results mentioned earlier and point out that by Grade 9 two out of three learners cannot do basic calculations, match tables to bar graphs, or read a simple line graph.  We are losing the learners long before they reach matric if they do not have firm foundational skills to grasp the curriculum.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will have further impacts on inequalities and school drop outs.  If we backtrack further down the education timeline we arrive at early learning; where the foundational skills, referred to in the DGMT report, that are needed to grasp the curriculum are born and nurtured.  It is well documented that the return on investment in education is significantly more in Early Childhood Development than later years.  Yet in South Africa this sector is often neglected.  The same inequalities that are present in primary and high schools are a part of daily life in an Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centre, on top of other challenges.

Early learning feeds into education later in life.  A quality and comprehensive start to education will give children a chance to reach their full potential since they are wired to learn and take in new information in the early years of life.  However, not all children in South Africa have access to quality ECCD services.  ECCD services are more than a place of learning where the foundational skills needed later in education get their kick-start.  For many children it is a place of safety and a source of nutrition which helps to build their bodies and brains.  

The ECCD sector is plagued by many challenges beyond the above-mentioned inequalities.  There are still many centres that are battling to get their official registration or much needed funding.  The migration of ECCD from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education is in principle a good move that will bring education under one umbrella.  The details surrounding this move remain murky. 

Child rights should be central to planning and policies so that equal access to quality early learning opportunities is ensured.  What the ECCD sector needs now is equal, well administered and timely action to save our children’s education.  A financial, human and attention-deserving investment in ECCD will show returns of strong foundational skills that will prepare learners for their school career. A multi-stakeholder approach will be needed to help build a foundation that can withstand the challenges that children will experience in the education system.  An early investment will set all children up for success to reach their full potential, break cycles of poverty and build our country's future.

Freda WaltersEducation Project Manager at Save the Children South Africa.

Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In South Africa and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.
Note to the Editor: If children are affected, we’ve got something to say. Our team of experts are available for comments, interviews and information.