The relationship between poverty and education runs in both directions. Lack of a good quality education means that many South Africans cannot fully participate as workers or entrepreneurs in the economy. This condemns them to unemployment or low-wage employment, and prevents their human potential being unlocked to allow them to become productive workers and citizens.
Better educated workers stimulate economic growth by making it possible to compete better in international markets, and also implies that there are more people to take the initiative in starting more businesses and serving new markets.
On the other side of the poverty–education relationship is the fact that the education provided to poor people is usually of weak quality. Throughout the world children from richer households perform better at school than poor children, on average. This relationship is referred to as the social gradient: At higher levels of socio-economic status, children generally perform better. This social gradient is very steep in South Africa, meaning that economic privilege generally translates into educational privilege. For instance, our research has found that there is an achievement gap of almost three years between grade 3 learners in the wealthiest schools and those in poor schools.
Thus, the education–labour market connection is characterised by a vicious circle whereby poor children obtain poor quality education, which in turn limits their participation in the economy and obstructs the next generation’s efforts to get a good education. Our research has identified low-quality education as the main poverty trap holding back upward mobility of children from poor families.
There is now clear evidence that learning outcomes in our education system are improving. Yet, far too many children are still failing to master the basics of learning. PIRLS 2016, a nationally representative literacy test of grade 4 students in predominantly home language, shows that 78% of South Africa’s grade 4 children have not yet learnt to read for meaning. In Chile, a country at a similar level of economic development as South Africa, this proportion is only 13%.
Not being able to read becomes a binding constraint as children progress further at school. Students who have failed to learn to read cannot subsequently read to learn. For all subjects, the curriculum assumes that children have learned how to read by the end of grade 3. Early learning backlogs preclude many poor children from meaningful subsequent learning.
Our education system, like our economy, is still characterised by a stark dualism whereby a privileged group of about 15% of participants in the labour market hold most of the attractive jobs in the economy, and those attaining these jobs mainly come from the best performing 15% of schools. In contrast, children from the bulk of the school system still struggle to overcome their background in order to become successful in the labour market. Only about 15% of children eventually achieve a Bachelor’s pass in matric that allows them to enter university, an important route to attractive jobs and opportunities. For those not able to achieve at that level, usually through no fault of their own, weak education has closed this door to upward social mobility.
As a society, we expect our education system to create conditions for poor children to become full participants in a modern economy. Yet our education system is still unable to create such opportunities for most poor children. Quality improvements in basic education, particularly learning to read in the foundation phase, are a national priority. For this reason we recommend that the Department of Basic Education adopt one unifying goal: “Every child in South Africa must learn to read for meaning by the end of grade 3.”
The Mandela Initiative, a university-led, multi-sector platform in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, this week convened a national workshop to review five years’ work to investigate and develop strategies to overcome poverty and inequality.
(Photo credit: Gallo Images / Nicholas Rawhani)