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New report: seismic shift needed in South Africa’s education system to break the cycle of poverty and inequality

by Media Xpose

A “seismic shift” in the education system is required to break the cycle of poverty and inequality in South Africa, says Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT) chief executive Tracey Webster.

“South Africa is well aware of the issues that persist in the education system and has the skills and resources to address them, but that requires genuine collaboration between leaders in civil society, academia, philanthropy, the private sector and government to ensure every person has access to quality education at every phase of their journey,” Webster said on Tuesday 12 September 2023 as the charitable trust launched its Education Research Report.

The South African education system needs changes at every level, starting with early childhood development (ECD) and running through to higher education research and development, OMT’s research shows. It lists possible solutions to challenges at ECD, school and tertiary level.

“South Africa has the highest Gini coefficient, making ours the most unequal society in the world. This is entrenched in our education system, where unequal access to quality education lies at the heart of the country’s extreme and persistent levels of inequality,” says Webster.

The research shows that approximately 80% of South Africa’s population does not have access to quality ECD programmes. Because of this, a large proportion of young people  enter the basic education (school) system with learning backlogs that are often never remedied.

Addressing the ECD HR and youth unemployment crises in one

Given the way the education system is structured, the report identifies several opportunities to remedy the many challenges that the ECD sector faces. These challenges range from inadequate funding at public and private level to unrealistic government regulations and poor coordination and monitoring, all exacerbated by a human resources shortfall of 200 000 ECD practitioners and 200 000 additional ECD workers.

Given the high rate of youth unemployment in South Africa, which hovers around 58% according to the research, OMT believes the shortage of workers in ECD unlocks a unique opportunity. As such, the trust has decided to focus on helping young people upskill and learn how to run early learning programmes, while looking at how public funding can be leveraged to support them.

The report unpacks other opportunities to support a sustainable ECD ecosystem, drive awareness of ECD’s importance and build the sector’s capacity so that every child in South Africa has access to quality early childhood education.

Harnessing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for basic education           

The new OMT report also highlights opportunities for improving basic education, a sector that is plagued by various challenges, including that 50% of South Africa’s current teacher cohort will be retiring by 2030. While this could potentially place enormous strain on an already stretched sector, it also provides an unprecedented opportunity to focus on initial teacher education, ensuring that young, dynamic, tech-enabled teachers with the requisite content knowledge and pedagogy enter the classroom. 

The report identifies multiple pathways that will unlock significant and scaleable improvements in foundation phase teaching. These include supporting the growth of school-based, mentorship-led initial teacher education programmes; backing innovations at higher education institutions to improve the quality, quantity and retention of new teachers; and supporting ed-tech initiatives that aid teaching and improve learners’ foundational literacy and numeracy skills. 

Building a pipeline of exceptional academic talent to bolster higher education

Most problems in higher education have their roots in the dysfunctional basic education system, leaving universities with a disproportionately large share of responsibility for educating school-     leavers, the report finds.     

The report points out one of the biggest challenges in the higher education system is that too few school-leavers are attracted to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) careers because the TVET colleges, in general, lack the capacity to properly prepare young people for a future in which they can earn a living. Moreover, there are deep inequalities in the nature and quality of teaching and research provided by South Africa’s public universities that have their roots in the apartheid-era education system. Their financial sustainability is also under threat, given that government funding via the core subsidy has not kept pace with the growth in student enrolments. This, coupled with the government’s decision to fund fee-free higher education for poor and working-class students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), has diverted funds from postgraduate students and research. 

OMT views its continued funding of postgraduate scholarships for master’s, doctoral, postdoctoral and sabbatical research as critical to bolstering the South African academy. Alongside the annual Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, the trust is introducing the New Frontiers Research Award aimed at early- to mid-career researchers to help rebuild and sustain South Africa’s research excellence. The trust is also starting an honours programme in partnership with Sol Plaatje University to bridge an important gap where there is little funding to support honours students.

“South Africa has the skills and expertise to turn its education system around and find innovative solutions to fill its gaps. We simply have to do this, or we will never break the cycle of poverty and inequality. OMT has picked the gaps best suited to our particular skill set, but there are so many opportunities for others in the sector,” says Webster.

The Education Research Report summarises two years of extensive research into how the trust can contribute to solving major challenges plaguing the education system.

OMT researchers reviewed 66 pieces of academic literature and other information, assessed 67 survey responses from non-governmental organisations across the three tiers of education – ECD, basic education and higher education – and held 71 interviews with sector experts. The full report can be downloaded at https://www.omt.org.za/research-reports

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