Shock Findings Around South Africa’s Education System

Despite efforts to implement recovery plans at schools in South Africa, researchers have found that there has been a loss of one year of learning as far as reading is concerned, basic education minister Angie Motshekga said on Wednesday.

Motshega was addressing a mini-plenary of the National Assembly to give an update on the department’s progress as well as outline budget vote priorities for the year ahead.

Motshekga said she had requested the department’s researchers to analyse the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the basic education system.

“The researchers agree that at the heart of our sector is learning, and at the heart of improving learning, is improving reading in the early grades. They report that prior to Covid-19, we had seen progress in the reading abilities of children.

“According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), reading in Grade 4, improved substantially between 2006 and 2016.

However, according to professor Martin Gustafssohn, research suggests that by the end of 2021, the average Grade 4 learner could read as well as the average Grade 3 learner before the pandemic.

“Therefore, there has been a loss of one year of learning. Put differently, we slid backwards in terms of our PIRLS progress by a few years. These losses are similar to what has been witnessed around the world,” she said.

Motshekga said that given these losses, and despite the department’s best efforts in terms of its school recovery plan, it is not expected that the PIRLS 2021 results will display any improvements when released at the end of this year.

“If we do see improvements, we would welcome such, but we have to be realistic. Therefore, international assessment studies, such as PIRLS, but also the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), have played a critical role in monitoring progress in the past, and will in the years to come, help us to understand how effectively we are recovering from the negative effects of the pandemic.”

No massive learner drop-out post-lockdown

Motshekga said, meanwhile, that a key question for the sector was whether the pandemic has had any impact on learners dropping out of school.

She said the department monitored the situation and engaged researchers. After initial conflicting reports, there is now an agreement that initial evidence that showed that some half-a-million children did not return to school when they should have was not correct.

“This received media coverage in the middle of last year. The evidence we now have, and researchers are in agreement on this, is that there was no massive worsening of the dropout patterns, compared to what we saw before the pandemic.

“There have been some problems – such as Grades R to 1 enrolment being around 25,000 lower than expected in 2021 due to parents delaying first enrolment of their children. But, compared to the initial half-a-million estimate, this is a relatively small and a manageable problem.”


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