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The National Planning Commission (NPC) has commended government for inroads made in improving access to education in the country, saying this is critical to reducing high inequality levels.

The finding is contained in the NPC’s report on the country’s economic progress titled ‘Economic Progress towards the NDP’s Vision 2030: Recommendations for Course Correction’.

The report was the subject of an intensive discussion at a webinar on Thursday.

“The most important investment we can make for redistribution and inclusion is education. This should be our number one priority, and there [has been] a huge effort to improve education,” said NPC Commissioner Miriam Altman while delivering the report.

She said while the sector gets criticised regularly, the reality is that there has been progress.

“We perform very poorly by global standards and for a middle income country, but we have made progress and we need to know why we’ve made progress and continue with that.

“Global measures show us that South Africa has made significant progress in its education capability. The problem is that in many of these measures, it’s slowed down over the past decade.” 

In the report, the NPC said education outcomes are the most important assetrequired to reduce poverty, promote employment and growth.

“Economic inclusion and sustained growth will be impossible unless we achieve the NDP education targets, which are aligned to the benchmark for successful, middle income countries,” reads the document.

In regard to generational transitions, 70% of secondary school graduates, aged 20-34, and 67% of 24-year-old black post-secondary students exceeded their parents’ education level.

“NDP targets aim to align SA education outcomes to other similar, successful middle-income countries, as measured in global and regional comparative studies on reading, maths and science,” said Altman.

Maths and science outcomes

The report finds that significant progress had been made in learner achievement until 2011 but improvements have slowed since then.

“Grade 9 learners in 2011 gained the equivalent of three years of education [compared to] their 2002 counterparts, and 2015 learners gained one year over their 2011 counterparts,” the report said.

Between 2008 and 2015, maths performance improved, mostly amongst African and Coloured learners.

During this time, a significant rise in Bachelor passes was recorded in quintile 1-3 schools from 35% in 2008 to 57% in 2016.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of black university students tripled, with growing numbers in contact universities and in SET [subjects under the faculties of Arts, Science, Mental Moral and Social Sciences, Commerce, Law, Management, Education and Physical Education].  Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) enrolments doubled over to 737 880.

“It’s an incredible achievement. We have a growing number of people in science and engineering. It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s growing,” Altman said.

The NPC, did, however, warn that the quality of education was still “far too low”.

About 75% of low quintile school learners have fallen behind by Grade 4, and cannot read for meaning in any language.

“We find that 18% – 36% of quintile 1 – 3 households could potentially be pulled above the upper bound poverty line by 2030 if 2/3 of higher education targets are met,” said Altman.

Getting the basics right

To drive improvement in performance in basic education, the NPC said the country would need to reboot the NDP’s focus on accountability in the schooling sector.

Beyond this, government would need to improve and monitor reading in the early grades.

“If you don’t get it right there, it is very hard to make up for it. It becomes very expensive to correct it, if at all.

“Insist on better monitoring of education sector trends and ensure all schools have internet and supportive services, along with investment in digitally enabled teaching and learning practices,” said Altman.

She said the country has in recent times significantly improved investment in school administration and monitoring systems. 

“If you don’t know what is going on and you don’t know why you’ve had improvement, and which schools have fallen behind, it’s very hard to act on. It’s important that we focus on these things.”

The NPC, she said, is of the view that the annual national assessment (ANA) should be reintroduced. ANA was an instrument introduced by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in 2011 to enable a systemic evaluation of education performance and in Grades 3, 6 and 9. The assessment was discontinued in 2018.

“When you have a problem in education at the degree that we do, you need to test every single year to know where you [are]. It’s not hammering teachers. You have to know where you are,” she said.

Further, there is a need to improve system coherence to provide a continuum of vocational skills responsive to the demands of industry, Altman said.


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