Public education needs an overhaul - Post

2 December 2020 - South Africa spent just over a fifth of its 2019 national budget on education, but continues to deliver substandard schooling that is failing young people.

Duwayne Esau

South Africa spent just over a fifth of its 2019 national budget on education, but continues to deliver substandard schooling that is failing young people.

The meagre returns on the investment of 20.7% of the budget on schooling is depressingly obvious from data in the 2020 edition of the South Africa Survey published by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Against the sum of R344.3 billion spent on education and postschool education and training in 2018 19, of the 78.1% 400 632 who passed the National Senior Certificate, only 33.6% 172 043 achieved a Bachelor's pass, and only 21.7% 50 701 passed maths with more than 50%.

Bear in mind that a good maths qualification is the first essential step to a middleclass life for young people. Employment data shows why education is the key ingredient for a successful life. Among those who did not complete their secondary schooling, the labour absorption rate the proportion of the working age population that is employed was only 32.3% in 2019.

Even among those with matric, only 47.8% had a job. Getting a good enough matric mark to continue studying is vital; the labour absorption rate among graduates is 73.8%, significantly higher than for those with only a matric pass.

The data points to far-reaching changes in the structure of the South African economy, and the growing importance of high-skill sectors. In 1990, mining and manufacturing accounted for 12.9% and 28.7% of formal employment respectively. By 2018, mining accounted for 2.6% and manufacturing 10.7%, while jobs in the high-skill sectors of finance 16.6% , trade 20.5% and community, social and government services 23% accounted for the bulk of formal employment.

Thus, the scope for absorbing low and semiskilled people is narrowing, denying opportunities to those who lack education to find jobs in high-skill sectors. It is no surprise, then, that youth employment is shockingly high: 56.4% in 2019 among people between 15 and 24, and 41.1% for people between 15 and 34.

If the education system is not giving us value for money or spending as much as we do is not working where does the solution lie? The IRR argues that a major overhaul of schooling better school management, better teaching and better grades is needed to equip young people to pursue tertiary education and gain access to opportunities in the steadily modernising economy.

This is possible, according to IRR policy fellow John Kane-Berman's 2018 report, Achievement and Enterprise in School Education. This pilot study of 12 top-scoring public and independent schools including five no-fee township schools in Gauteng revealed, as Kane-Berman observed, that "the real division in South Africa is not between public and independent schools but between good schools and bad ones".

The key markers of success were the presence of committed, competent principals who managed staff and resources with skill, enterprise and care; devoted, hardworking teachers willing to take on extra tuition and give their all for the benefit of pupils; strong parental involvement to support the efforts of principals and teachers; and an emphasis on discipline and on instilling positive values in pupils.

Kane-Berman wrote: "With the exception of one suburban school whose overall NSC pass rate was 93%, and one township school whose rate was 95%, all eight of the secondary schools in the study achieved rates of between 98% and 100%. So there was little difference in the performance of township and suburban schools."

The IRR has long argued that such successes can be replicated, and that the key is giving parents wider choices and more influence by channelling education funding into a school voucher system, as used successfully in, among other places, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, and some cities in the US.

Dr Anthea Jeffery, IRR head of policy research, points out that while the choice of schooling is limited to the middle class, poor parents could be given the same choice by redirecting much of the schooling budget R260bn into tax-funded school vouchers to be provided to all parents below a certain income level.

"If vouchers were to be introduced in South Africa, parents armed with them would finally have real choices as to the schools they would like their children to attend," said Jeffery.

"Some might choose those public schools that already perform well. Others might opt for the collaboration model, as developed in the Western Cape. Some would decide to send their children to private schools run by entrepreneurs, such as Spark schools. Others might prefer private schools run by religious institutions or nongovernmental organisations."

Dysfunctional schools would improve their performance under the pressure to up their game.

Moreover, Jeffery notes, IRR opinion surveys show high support among South Africans for a voucher system with 91% of all respondents, and 93% of black people, saying they would like a tax-funded voucher so they could send their children to schools of their choice.

The future success of young people depends on an education system that delivers good results. Without it, young people have little hope of gaining the better life they have been promised for years.

Esau is the strategic communications officer at the Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.