SA literacy woes: Our schools mirror our ailing society

read, reading, books

According to the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2021), South African learners are the worst readers in the world at a Grade Four level. Picture: Pexels

Published May 31, 2023


OPINION: We may rescue reading. Our stuff might be deep, but South African courage and spirit is deeper.

by Alison Scott, executive principal of Bellavista School

It’s no surprise that, once again, a recent study illuminates the desperately low achievements in literacy and numeracy rates among our learners.

According to the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2021), our learners are the worst readers in the world at a Grade Four level. The results were substantially lower than the same review in 2016, correlating perhaps with the shocking state of the nation and the pillage of its resources.

We have a battle on our hands, and it’s not pretty.

No regulation, no reading

Ask any educational theorist and they’ll tell you, learning cannot occur in the absence of relationship and regulation. In the current and sustained turmoil and uncertainty of the South African context, adults are struggling to regulate themselves.

No regulation, no reasoning

Schools mirror society. They are micro-communities reflecting all that goes on around them.

They are challenging places to navigate right now, because the world is in chaos. Conditions in a grossly unequal society with fractured infrastructures, including material, political and societal ones, don’t just dampen a mood, they universally deliver anger, discontentment and lawlessness. It takes a tiny spark, a word, a perception even, to plummet thousands into despair and even unrest.

Relationships in schools are dangerously at risk as an “each to their own” survival mentality takes hold in its stakeholders. Our discontent is unburdened on our children. We give them the baggage and then we wonder why the youth have no hope.

The peril of darkness

For centuries, children attended school without power, and some still do. While devastating in light of the need to have children enter the 21 century technologically, the worst aspect of the rolling electricity crisis is the affective one.

Eskom’s press releases plummet South Africans into an abyss in an instant. They are tangible reminders of all that is so wrong. Just one announcement of load shedding and it’s frighteningly apparent that “our stuff” runs deep. Our individual and collective trauma is triggered when past and present pain merge in one suppurating power supply mess. We voice our fear and fury to any audience in earshot.

Things get heated quickly. Our differences in terms of exposure to crime, political opinion, religious affiliation, ideological standpoint, and traditional customs bring tension to our everyday engagements. Relationships in schools are no exception.

Pain from the outside in

Our stuff runs deep. Images and commentary running across our social media feeds, on roadside placards, over news stations and through the eyes of others worldwide can be too much to handle. Banners warning of sensitive viewing don’t feature as people post footage and photos to raise action towards their cause.

In a moment, what we see and hear is indelibly imprinted on our mind and etched into our world view, consciously or not. Our fears are realised. Our anger and prejudice are raised. Panic and helplessness immobilise our daily function. Children and adults are equally triggered and must find their way to cerebral tasks in this state of being. It’s impossible.

What are we teaching anyway?

Our stuff runs deep, so deep that our children learn it from us, the adults charged with their care. If we are to reset the South African narrative, change and redress needs to be driven to the heart of our school curricula and practice because the hope of any nation lies in its young people. The issues at play are theirs to confront and consider and combat. The future is in their hands.

We can choose an optimistic alternative?

Opportunities to develop empathy and then to take action must continue to be part of a child’s upbringing, at school and at home. This is not to rescue others, but to shift the nature of “our stuff” on this journey of life as citizens of our beautiful land. If our children grow up sharing food, they’re starting to address food insecurity. If they regularly care for another living being, they start to develop a community marked with compassion.

When they give charitably, they move away from self-preservation. If adults insist on and reinforce ethics, and lovingly holding their young accountable for the consequences of their actions, they’ll collectively push back on corruption in their generation. If we root our children in a strong moral code where love for one another trumps all else, we will move closer to a just, free, and fair society. If they learn respect, for themselves as much as for others, they will develop dignity. If they think critically, considering other points of view, they will make sound decisions and lean towards the building of a more inclusive society.

If we model kindness, forgiveness, justice and encourage concerted efforts, big or small, to repair the rupture, they will do likewise. These actions are in our hands.

We can recognise our stuff

When we feel tension between us, we need to consider that the issues are not only your stuff and my stuff, but our stuff. We are a collective. A positive quality of South Africans is that we “go there”. We speak up. We confront one another. We make memes and Nando’s adverts in a race to beat Zapiro’s witty cartoon of the week. We need to own our stuff and sit with the discomfort when we deal with it. Sometimes, if we listen, reflect, and reframe, we will alter our first reaction. We will take greater ownership for our community.

We may even rescue reading. Our stuff might be deep, but South African courage and spirit is deeper.

For more information, visit