Most junior primary kids illiterate: study

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Source: IOL

A new study on basic education released on Wednesday paints a bleak picture of roughly two thirds of junior primary school children being functionally illiterate and innumerate, a statistic that grows to 73 percent innumerate when pupils reach Grade 4.

The SA Child Gauge 2008/2009, an annual review of the situation of children in the country conducted by UCT’s Children’s Institute (CI), shows that while the country has a very high rate of enrolment in grades one to nine, they are often not receiving “meaningful access to education, or meaningful learning outcomes”.

Focusing on the theme of “meaningful access to basic education”, the publication looks at a range of factors that can enable or hamper children’s access to and progress through school.

Meaningful access to education, said the Children’s Institute’s Shirley Pendlebury, requires among other things access to well-conceived text books and other learning materials; competent and prepared teachers who are able to use a range of appropriate classroom practices; a curriculum that builds a strong basis in the foundation phase; teaching facilities and resources such as laboratories and well-stocked libraries; and a safe and supportive environment.

“Ninety-six percent of children of compulsory school age are enrolled in school, yet poor national averages for language and mathematics in grades 3 and 6 show that most learners do not acquire the skills and understanding that give substance to the right to education.”

Only 36% of grade 3 pupils passed the literacy and 35% the numeracy assessments in 2007, according to the preliminary findings.

The situation for grade 6 learners is worse: the national average for language of literacy teaching was 38%, and for mathematics only 27%.

A Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) study shows that the development of literacy is hampered by children not reading enough; and the lack of specific and good literacy instruction, linked to the qualification of teachers and the quality of their training.

The HSRC’s Cas Prinsloo said: “Children also experience difficulties when switching too abruptly from mother-tongue to a different language of learning and teaching”.

Children from poor homes and communities were therefore disadvantaged by the lack of learning opportunities.

Paula Ensor, Professor of Education and Dean of Humanities at UCT, said a solid foundation in numeracy was just as critical for further learning. This can only be achieved if teachers understand how children learn numbers.

However, the Count One Count All research project of UCT and Cape Peninsula University of Technology found that teachers often used inappropriate numeracy teaching strategies, and that pupils did little independent written work.

When it comes to physical access to schools, the South African Child Gauge 2008/2009 presents some interesting research findings on who is not at school, why children are dropping out of school, and the enabling effect of funding and school fee policies.

An analysis of the 2007 Community Survey by the School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), suggests that poverty and school fees are unlikely to be a sufficient explanation for why children are not in school.

They fall into five broad, but inter-related, categories: Children with disabilities; children with one or both parents dead or their whereabouts unknown; children not living with a relative; children in households eligible for social grants but who do not receive them; and children living on farms and in small towns in the Southern Cape or central Karoo.

“It is not always the poorest provinces where the most children are out of school – we found that Gauteng, Northern and Western Cape provinces had the largest proportion of children out of school”, said Brahm Fleisch, professor at Wits.

Similarly, research by the Education Policy Unit, also at Wits, found that absolute poverty does not directly contribute to absence from school, though it could cause late entry, and slow progress.

Instead, relative poverty – how children experience their poverty in relation to others – and social exclusion are key drivers of drop-out in grades one to nine, while the poor quality of education is associated with the drop in attendance rates for grades 10 -12 when children no longer see education as useful or worth staying in school for.

There is evidence, however, that the government’s no-fee schools policy goes some way in improving access to education, according to the study.

Research commissioned by the Alliance for Children’s Entitlement to Social Security has found that the policy has resulted in increased revenue for no-fee schools, while also relieving the burden of school fees on poor caregivers. But the CI’s Katharine Hall said increased funding did not imply sufficient funding, or necessarily results in quality improvements.

“Many schools still operate on a budget that does not allow for the delivery of quality education or the provision of school infrastructure that assists learning. More importantly, school funding excludes teacher salaries, which limits the impact on learner outcomes.”

An analysis of education budgets by the Institute of Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) found that the government’s moderation of expenses on teacher salaries had resulted in increased spending on infrastructure, textbooks and school funding, grade R and special needs schools.

There is greater and more equal national and provincial spending on education, though it is not necessarily successful in addressing backlogs.

Idasa’s Russell Wildeman said: “These changes have helped create a more ‘balanced’ education budget, but little has been done to improve teacher salaries and overall working conditions until the introduction of Occupation Specific Dispensation for educators in 2008. It remains to be seen whether increased investment in educators will translate into improved educational outcomes for children.”

The right to basic education in South Africa is guaranteed by the Constitution.But Pendlebury pointed out that rights on paper did not necessarily translate into rights on the ground.

“Children’s right to education will only be realised when government meets the educational needs of all children in South Africa. The current failures of the education system are unacceptable and threaten to undermine the promise of democracy and freedom.

“A critical question is how the new Ministry of Basic Education is going to respond to these challenges. Ongoing dialogue and debate is needed to mobilise public support and ensure that the right to education is realised.”