Only 25% of South African schools are “mostly functional”, and those that are – even in the private education sector – lag behind international standards norms for developing nations. In addition, Grade 6 maths teachers in poor and rural areas are often unable to answer the test questions set for their pupils.

That’s the view of a report by the South African Centre for Development and Enterprise, a business funded thinktank, released on Friday, which goes on to say that deficiencies in early years education leaves many with “insurmountable difficulties” as they fall further and further behind and ultimately drop out of school. Students from well off areas are up to four grades ahead of their less privileged peers, the report notes.

Called “South Africa’s Education Crisis”, the report has been authored by Nicholas Spaull, an economist from the University of Stellenbosch who has written several papers on educational standards in Sub-Saharan African in recent years. The report looks at South African education in the context of other middle-income countries and says that average education levels for all schools in Chile is higher than standards set in the top 20% of South Africa’s wealthiest schools. In total, fewer than 50% of students even reach matriculation exams.

“The picture that emerges time and again is both dire and consistent: however one chooses to measure learner performance, and at whichever grade one chooses to test, the vast majority of South African pupils are significantly below where they should be in terms of the curriculum, and more generally, have not reached a host of normal numeracy and literacy milestones. As it stands, the South African education system is grossly inefficient, severely underperforming and egregiously unfair. “

Maths and science are one of the primary areas where schools are failing their students, notes the report, which says that:

“South Africa has some of the least-knowledgeable primary school mathematics teachers in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these maths teachers, especially those that serve poor and rural communities, have below-basic levels of content knowledge. In many instances these teachers cannot answer questions their pupils are required to answer according to the curriculum.”

Spaull acknowledges that the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMMS) report, published in 2011, shows some progress in raising standards for maths and science since 2002, ”the average South African Grade Nine pupil is two years’ worth of learning behind the average Grade Eight pupil from 21 other middle-income countries in mathematics, and 2.8 years behind in science”.

Drawing on figures from a 2007 report into South African teaching standards, Spaull concludes that while the top 20% South African maths teachers are as good as the average teachers in Kenya or Zimbabwe, which top the table, the majority are on a par with the worst performing countries. In addition, there’s a high level of overconfidence among South African schools. In the TIMMS 2011 study 89% of South African Grade Nine teachers felt ‘very confident’ teaching maths; of the same teachers in Japan – where results are much better – only 36% of teachers felt the same.

“This has important ramifications when considering the demand for teacher training, since teachers who believe  that they possess adequate content knowledge or are sufficiently adept at teaching are far less likely to seek out professional development opportunities. “

In a separate report, Mathematics Outcomes in South African Schools, also published by CDE this week, the organisation suggests that techniques from the Montessori education system (Disclosure – my daughter goes to a Montessori school) which focusses on learning through play could be introduced to rural pre-schools to try and address the problem.

Spaull writes that while the current situation will propound the employment and opportunity gap within South Africa and leave the country struggling to keep up with the growth across the rest of the continent, there has been improvement.

“There are a number of recent policies that indicate that the Department of Basic Education is beginning to address some of the root causes of underperformance. The recent workbook initiative, the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), the Action Plan to 2030 and the implementation of the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) are all moves in the right direction.”

However, he criticises government for not acknowledging the depth of the problem, and says that there are problems with the implementation of the ANAs – such as teachers invigilating and marking their own classes – raise questions about their objectivity.

“While the 2011 tests, in agreement with most other available evidence, showed that the vast majority of pupils in South Africa are seriously underperforming relative to the curriculum, the 2012 ANAs showed impossibly large increases for the Foundation Phase (a year-on-year increase of 49 per cent in the case of Grade Three literacy) and have subsequently come under considerable critique by academics across the country.”

(Image: Shutterstock)

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.