This week we learned that 78% of our Grade 4 children are functionally illiterate. This means 4 out of 5 children aged 9-10 cannot comprehend what they read.
The implication for South Africa’s future is chilling. We will never achieve the broad justice, equality and prosperity we seek while the vast majority of our primary schools – those serving poor black children – are not able to give children a firm foundation for learning.
These dire numbers come from the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report released this week, which ranked South Africa last out of 50 high and medium income countries, and found no improvement in our outcomes since the last study in 2011.
It is crucially important that our children learn to read with meaning by the end of the Foundation Phase in Grade 3. It has been said that “once you learn to read you will be forever free”. Functional literacy is the foundation for all further learning, including the learning of mathematics. Children who do not “learn to read” in grades 1-3 will fall further and further behind in grades 4 to 12, when they must “read to learn” in all subjects.
Poor academic performance is one of the main reasons for SA’s incredibly high dropout rate after grade 9. By denying our children a firm foundation of literacy, we put them on the back foot for the rest of their schooling and lives, decimating their chances of ever fulfilling their potential. We deny them a foothold on the ladder of opportunity they must climb if they are to escape the poverty trap.
This is why the PIRLS results are so shocking, and so very significant. They speak volumes about past government failures, and even more about what the future has in store for South Africa unless we make some far-reaching changes.
We can and must do better than this. With enough will, we can fix the system and get our children reading with meaning by the end of Grade 3. We must all agree that imparting solid reading skills is the single most important goal in the foundation phase. Then we must do these six things urgently.
First, we must introduce specialist Teacher Training Colleges that can ensure a pipeline of well-trained Foundation Phase teachers who are able to teach reading, and that can retrain and upskill current teachers where necessary. These colleges must provide sufficient practical training and mentorship, including giving students school-based experience as assistant teachers in high performing schools.
Research consistently shows that the quality of teaching and school leadership are the most important school-based factors determining outcomes. (Of course, the impact of family life is enormous. Children who have parents who read and who read to them are at a great advantage. Families must share the responsibility with the state, and do what they can to get kids reading. Many children are at a significant disadvantage here, coming from families devastated by Apartheid and its legacy.)
There are huge disparities in teaching quality in the SA education system. The inescapable fact is, children from low-income households – almost all of them black – receive a generally lower quality of instruction and school leadership. This unfairness must end.
Second, we must establish an independent inspectorate, mandated and empowered to inspect schools and evaluate the quality of teaching, leadership, management and governance.
Third, this independent inspectorate must be responsible for the regular testing of learners, so that underperformance is constantly being identified. Low performing teachers must receive additional support and training while high performing teachers must be rewarded. It is imperative that we establish a link between performance and remuneration, to incentivise good results.
These three interventions will help deliver the three key requirements for teacher excellence: training, support and incentives.
Fourth, we must aim to expand and improve our school feeding schemes to ensure that no child starts school on an empty stomach. The Western Cape is the only province that provides two meals per day – breakfast and lunch – to kids on the school feeding scheme.
Fifth, we must prioritise the elimination of huge class sizes for Foundation Phase, and seek to provide teacher assistants for all Foundation Phase classes.
And sixth, we must work towards universal enrolment in at least two pre-school years: Grade R and Grade Pre-R. An early start has lasting benefits. The PIRLS report concluded that kids who received pre-primary schooling achieved better results.
These last three are aspirational, in the sense that they would require significant additional budget, which will not be forthcoming if we continue down our current fiscal path. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the key constraint to achieving high early literacy rates is political, not financial, in nature. SA spends four times as much as Kenya does on basic education per child, yet Kenyan kids achieve better results in reading and mathematics.
Until we get the politics right, South Africa’s kids are going to remain trapped in illiteracy and poverty. That’s why every single voter has a role to play in bringing freedom, fairness and opportunity to the children of South Africa.
This is my last Bokamoso for 2017. On behalf of the DA, I wish all South Africans a blessed Christmas and a safe, peaceful and fun festive season.