070210 Some of Durbans private schools may be forced to increase their fees because the municipality has decided to start charging them for rates.

The reality is acquiring a new indigenous language is unlikely to do much to enhance one’s overall level of employability, says Matthew Thomas.

Cape Town - Lengthening the school day by up to an hour to accommodate an African language is unlikely to reduce unemployment, and the time would be better spent on subjects that improve students’ overall employability.

South Africa has an unenviable position in global educational rankings. A recent World Economic Forum report places South Africa second to last in maths and science globally, and ranks the overall education system 140th of 144 countries.

A 2008 survey by the department of education said 80 percent of schools had no library, 70 percent no computers and that 42 percent were overcrowded.

The situation doesn’t improve in the secondary and tertiary tiers of education. Last year the national average matric pass rate in maths was a disappointing 54 percent and the science pass rate was only marginally better at 61 percent. Bearing in mind that the pass rate is now set at only 30 percent, these figures aren’t exactly cause for celebration.

A recent department of higher education report acknowledges that endemic dysfunction in the primary and secondary tiers of education adversely affects post-school education, with the schooling system not adequately preparing anywhere near enough students for the rigours of tertiary-level learning.

The report showed that only 25 percent of students complete their degrees within regulation times, under half graduated within five years for three-year degrees, over half of students will never graduate and that fewer than 5 percent of black South Africans possess any form of tertiary qualification at all.

The consequence of such dysfunction has been the continual deepening of the skills deficit, which has made employers ever more risk averse in their hiring processes, leaving South Africa with an unemployment crisis of monumental proportions.

Most private sector employers say the lack of adequately skilled labour is their most pressing concern. Issues such as a highly unionised labour market and the subsequent minimum wage legislations, as well as prohibitive regulatory barriers which make it difficult for firms to fire unproductive workers only serve to further employers’ levels of risk aversion.

The productivity gap caused by these high “real wages” and low rates of labour productivity increases the risks to businesses of hiring young entry-level workers and is a key driver behind our unemployment crisis, with the economy absorbing only 300 000 of the 1.1 million young South African’s who enter the labour market annually.

In a highly competitive and globalised world such a gap serves to make South African labour and the goods it produces less competitive against other countries, further fuelling unemployment.

This is most evident in the decline of the textile industry in the face of competition from lower-cost and more productive regions. Improving the education system is of paramount importance. Merely lengthening the school day or expanding the teaching of non-core subjects won’t help cut unemployment.

The education system must be restructured in a way that ensures it is sufficiently aligned to the demands of both the domestic and the international economy. The reality is that acquiring a new indigenous language is unlikely to do much to enhance one’s overall level of employability.

This is not to say that the learning of such subjects is not important. Greater knowledge of indigenous languages is crucial in improving communications and forging greater cultural integration and understanding.

But incorporating such learning into the curriculum wouldn’t be the most effective use of school time, when there is such a great need for improvement in core subjects like maths and science. Introducing such a policy on a voluntary basis, as part of extracurricular learning, might be a more sensible approach.

* Matthew Thomas is a researcher for the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus