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Education in South Africa — a persisting divide

For South African parents the new school year, inevitably, brings a hike in school fees, that will place even more strain on their already limited finances and increase the inequality gap. Paulina French looks at school fees, 2018 Matric results and the President’s expected plan to transform education.

For parents across the country, the new school year, inevitably, brings a hike in school fees, a hike that will place even more strain on their already limited finances writes Paulina French.

The South African government is quick to congratulate itself on the increase in the national pass rate for those who have just completed the National Senior Certificate (NSC), from 75.1% in 2017 to 78.2% in 2018, with 624 733 learners sitting for the exams.

Roughly 34% (172 043) of these learners achieved results which allow them to apply for university. This is a significant increase on last year which saw only 28,7% (153 753) achieving university-ready results.

But, is this such a bright picture for national education performance measures after all?

The Department of Education (DoE) reports that in the past five years (2014-2018), out of 6 878 government schools only 101 achieved a 100% pass rate.
Perhaps, to express it differently, this means that approximately 1.5% of all government schools have been able to consistently achieve a 100% pass rate over the past five years. This was only marginally better in the previous five-year period, where 115 schools achieved a perfect five-year record.

Although there are many public schools producing excellent results, whose learners go on to perform well at tertiary institutions, it seems that these schools are an exception to the norm.

The Independent Examination Board (IEB) exam results for 2018 have also been released. Here, the results are significantly better; but you would hope for that given the exorbitant fees that parents have to pay for private education.

Sadly, the statistics made available to the public are scant and not nearly as comprehensive as those offered by the DoE. Nonetheless, out of 218 schools (12 372 learners) registered for examinations, the 2018 IEB pass rate was 98.92%. This is only a marginal increase from 98.76% in 2017. Of these 90,65%, roughly 11 215 learners managed a result which allows them to apply for university. The good news is that only 134 learners failed the IEB matric exams in 2018.

I know that I’ve given you a bundle of statistics, but I hope that these numbers might make explicit the persisting story of inequality in our education system. It is clear that the advantage of top resources and a far greater teacher to learner ratio, than is the case with government schools, gives our children a far greater possibility for academic success.

The more this gap continues to grow the less likely we are to achieve transformation in our economy, increase the national rate of employment and significantly reduce the country’s levels of poverty.

On the other hand, I would argue that a free and democratic society ought to allow parents the freedom to choose what kind of educational system they want for their children, whether public or private.

Having looked at the question of matric results, we must also consider the ever-increasing cost of education.

Tragically, private schools’ fees are completely outside of the financial capacities of low income earners or the unemployed. There are a few who have been fortunate to get bursaries to private schools because they have shown great academic promise. It must also be said that there are some private schools who have made it part of their mission to award bursaries to learners from low income homes in an attempt to respond to the needs of society’s poorest and to stop the cycle of poverty. Sadly, these are still far too few. I have also noticed, that private schools are also becoming increasingly unaffordable for more of the “middle classes” than was previously the case.

A November 2018 Sunday Times report highlighted the 2019 school fees increase for both private and public schools. Overall, increases are set to be above the 4.9% inflation rate for 2018. The report cites that private schools’ fees will rise 7.8% on average. In many cases, the percentage is much higher. The private Marist Brothers Linmeyer in the south of Johannesburg announced a 9.9% increase in fees for Grade 10 and Grade 11 learners. The above inflation increase will also affect public schools, set to see an 8.2% increase on average this year. Consider that Rivonia Primary School will experience a 10% increase in annual fees for those in Grades 2 – 7.

It is clear that the country’s education and the continuing divide in educational possibilities across the social classes are complex.

City Press reports President Cyril Ramaphosa is planning to announce a major overhaul to the country’s education strategy:

“a universal roll-out of tablets for all pupils in the country’s 23 700 primary and secondary schools; computer coding and robotics classes for foundation-phase pupils from grades 1 to 3; and the digitisation of the entire curriculum, including textbooks, workbooks and all teacher support material.

“Other plans on the cards include the conversion of a significant number of schools to technical high schools and the introduction of a compulsory two years of pre-primary school for all South African children”

City Press, January 2019

Such changes could have a positive impact on the skills available in country’s future labour force but only if Government implements these processes and programmes well.

Ramaphosa has also established a commission to study the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to coordinate South Africa’s action plan to deal with the changes that major global technological advances will bring.

The opportunity exists now for the country to look beyond technology. We need to find ways of giving the greatest number of people the ability to impact positively on their communities and in the organisations where they work. This will strengthen the economy as a whole.

We can only hope that education will be at the forefront of the list of priorities so that the wall that divides the educational opportunities of the rich and poor might finally be levelled.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.