Study Confirms DBE’s Failures Condemning our Children to a Lifetime of Practical Illiteracy

ActionSA is gravely concerned with the latest findings from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), released today by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). The study reveals a distressing reality: 81% of learners in Grade 4 in South Africa are unable to read for meaning – up from 78% in 2019, effectively wiping out a decade of progress made in reading skills.

In practical terms, this means that eight out of 10 of South African 10-year-olds cannot answer simple questions based on a piece of age-appropriate writing, rendering them functionally illiterate.

Without the fundamental ability to read for meaning, these children cannot build knowledge, make decisions or engage in critical thinking that is appropriate for a child of their age, condemning them to a lifetime of poor educational outcomes. This will perpetuate existing patterns of poverty and inequality as those without the means to afford better quality schooling will be condemned to a reliance on inadequate public schooling.

Unfortunately, it is black children that suffer the most from the Department’s failures: most African-language schools declined in performance, while English and Afrikaans schools did not. The pre-existing inequalities in education was thus entrenched during the pandemic and the Department’s subsequent failed response.

This PIRLS study was released on the same day as the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) data for Q1 2023. While the unemployment rate dropped marginally by 0.2%, the number of unemployed individuals increased to 11.94 million South Africans. Our stagnant economic growth rate and sustained unemployment rate – especially among young South Africans – is directly related to our poor educational outcomes, and the lack of a skilled, competitive labour force. To fix our economy, we need to start by fixing our educational outcomes.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant loss of school time have undeniably exacerbated this issue, causing significant learning losses that further obstruct our learners’ development. The fallout from the pandemic has exposed and amplified pre-existing structural deficiencies in our educational system. The Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) response to loss of learning suffered during the pandemic focused on remote learning – which the majority of South African learners do not have access to.

As the mandated custodian of our nation’s basic education, DBE has a responsibility to ensure that all learners can access and benefit from a quality education that provides them with the necessary skills to succeed. This includes establishing the basic requirements necessary for reading for meaning – a foundational skill that impacts all aspects of a child’s educational journey.

We urge DBE to address this issue urgently and comprehensively. It must consider the harsh realities exposed by the PIRLS study, and use these insights to guide its decisions and actions. South African children deserve an effective, comprehensive strategy to improve literacy rates that includes rigorous teacher training, the provision of quality learning materials, and an environment conducive to learning. Despite repeated promises by President Ramaphosa, the basic education of our young people still does not receive sufficient attention.

The future of our nation is shaped in our classrooms today. We owe it to our children to provide them with the education they need and deserve, setting them up for success rather than a lifetime of struggle.

ActionSA’s recently launched policy process will invite educators and academics to contribute to our vision on how to ensure that our young people receive the education they need to empower themselves and pursue a lifetime of prosperity. We refuse to stand by and watch while political inactivity destroys the hopes and dreams of our children.