‘Minister, read this’: poor reading skills symptom of Education Ministry that lacks understanding, says FEDSAS

19/05/2023 - Fedsas

In the same week it came to light that 81% of Grade 4s could not read with comprehension in 2021, it also became clear that the National Department of Education does not comprehend the challenges facing education in South Africa.

“The Minister of Basic Education’s budget speech is a red light for the education sector. There is no vision for the future even though the authoritative PIRLS study indicated that we lost a decade of progress,” says Dr Jaco Deacon, CEO of FEDSAS (the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools). PIRLS, a survey conducted every five years to measure international progress in reading skills, indicates that South Africa has dropped back to 2011 levels. “Even South Africa’s best PIRLS result, in 2016 when 78% of Grade 4s could not read with comprehension, still reflects poorly on efforts to establish quality education.”

Deacon says reading skills will only be addressed effectively if there is an urgent focus in the foundation phase, together with catch-up programmes, on appointing specialist educators and therapeutic services. “Our schools need more social workers, occupational, speech and physiotherapists and fewer incompetent educators hiding behind overly prescriptive workbooks.” The number of learners per classroom, especially in the foundation phase, cannot be more than 25 but more schools are needed to achieve this.

“All of this cost money. And despite this the education budget makes provision for R121.5 million for the National Education Collaboration Trust. This trust was created as a platform for cooperation with role-players and for the private sector to support education. However, it has morphed into a parallel structure that takes a big bite out of the budget. Money is flowing in the wrong direction.

“The Presidential Youth Employment Initiative, that forms part of the presidential employment stimulus programme, is supposed to be funded by the Presidency. It is difficult to understand how R6.9 billion from the education budget could be allocated to this initiative. Education would have been able to use this money for building several new schools or to create smaller classes in the foundation phase.”

FEDSAS welcomes the funds allocated to resources for early childhood development. “FEDSAS would like to see that skills development here is also funded properly, especially in light of the Minister’s observation that less than half of children currently in ECD centres will reach their development milestones by age five.”

FEDSAS is also concerned about the slow implementation of the Three-Stream-Model. The aim of this is to create three separate education pathways, namely academic, vocational and occupational. “FEDSAS supports this model as it can address the country’s skills shortage and alleviate high unemployment under young people. But it is not happening quickly enough.”

Deacon says it appears as if Minister Angie Motshekga is running out of steam. “Dysfunctional provincial education departments, incompetent officials and bad teachers are the three potholes that might make the wheels come off for quality education. It seems that there is not enough political will to fix this.”

Another indication that the ministry is not firing on all cylinders is the fact that the Minister is yet to respond to governing body organisations’ memorandum to her about the poor functioning of the National Consultative Forum. “This forum has been meeting quarterly for more than 20 years and is the only structure that allows governing body organisations to engage directly with the National Department. The Department has shifted responsibility for the NCF to junior officials with no decision-making capacity. It’s become a toothless structure and the Minister is nowhere to be seen.”

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