South Africa’s public schooling system has been given an F for its performance from 1996 to 2011.

High absenteeism and low subject knowledge among teachers, as well as the failure of pupils to acquire the most basic literacy and numeracy skills, contributed to the scathing report card.

This was despite the government’s spending 20 percent of its total budget on education, University of Stellenbosch researcher Nic Spaull told a conference of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa) at the weekend. Citing data from 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2011, Spaull elicited gasps from delegates.

Spaull said: “It is without question that… SA’s schooling system remains dysfunctional in that it lacks the ability to educate most of the youth. Every survey that we have testifies to this fact. Children may be in school, but most are simply not learning what they should be.

“The post-apartheid government inherited a divided and mostly dysfunctional education system,” he said.

“While it has successfully managed to increase access, equalise government expenditure and ensure that government spending is pro-poor, on the most important task of providing all children with a basic education… irrespective of race, class or geography, it has failed dismally.”

Naptosa’s KZN head, Anthony Pierce, called the statistics “frightening”.

Labby Ramrathan, an associate professor at the School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, remarked that while the facts as presented by Spaull were “real”, an F was harsh considering the country’s past.

Arguing the case that SA had two education systems, Spaull said only one percent of Grade 8 pupils at schools in quintiles one to four would go on to pass Grade 12 and earn a C or higher in maths. Ten times as many quintile five pupils would do so.

The quintile system is a poverty ranking from one to five, with five being most affluent.

Spaull contended that 75 percent of SA schools were characterised by:

* “Incompetent” school management.

* The lack of a culture of learning and discipline.

* Slow covering of the curriculum.

* Little homework and testing.

* A high rate of grade repetition and drop-outs.

“More resources is not the silver bullet,” Spaull said.

This was because while SA spent 18 times as much money per pupil as Uganda, in both countries 71 percent of 12-year-olds were literate.

And although SA spent nearly five times more per child than Kenya, 7 percent of Grade 6 pupils in Kenya were functionally illiterate compared to 25 percent of their SA counterparts.

As for maths teachers, their knowledge of subject content was below that of their peers in eight other African countries.

Ten percent of KZN’s teachers were outside their classrooms for two months (40 school days) a year, and 73 percent for one month, according to the 2007 Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq) study.