Students deep in concentration at the Sena-Marena High School in Soweto. Last month, as the Grade 12 national senior certificate exams were written, concerns that the standards of exam papers had dropped were raised. Picture: Chris Collingridge

THE FINDINGS of two major international studies conducted to gauge the well-being of education systems across the globe released last week have confirmed what countless other studies have – SA’s education system is in the doldrums.

This is despite the fact that education in South Africa receives the lion’s share, 21 percent, of the national budget. For the 2012/13 financial year the Department of Basic Education and the provincial departments of education received a collective R207 billion.

The Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study, which was conducted last year, tested reading literacy levels of 325 000 Grade 4 and 5 pupils from 48 countries.

The study is done every couple of years and South Africa was part of it for the first time in 2001, then 2006 and again last year.

The local leg of the study, which was conducted by the University of Pretoria, included 19 000 pupils from 430 schools, both public and independent. Pupils did the assessments in the languages they’re taught in at school.

The study found that Grade 4 pupils, particularly those who were tested in vernacular languages, scored “well below” the international centre point despite having written an easier assessment.

“Learners tested in Afrikaans and English performed relatively well and above the international centre point. However, those tested in African languages, despite most writing in their home language, achieved very low outcomes, and learners tested in Sepedi and Tshivenda were especially low,” the study found.

Only 6 percent of the Grade 4 pupils were at an advanced reading level and 71 percent were able to read at the basic level to attain the low international benchmark.

“More than half of the pupils tested in Sepedi and Tshivenda could not read at the basic level required for successful reading.”

The study also found that the reading literacy levels of Grade 4 pupils in remote rural areas were two years behind those of pupils at schools in urban areas and 75 percent of Grade 5 pupils in rural schools were “at risk educationally” in reading literacy.

The findings revealed that 43 percent of SA’s Grade 5 pupils have not developed the basic skills required for reading at an equivalent international Grade 4 level.

The study also found that incidents of bullying were highest among SA pupils, with 55 percent of Grade 4 children having reported “frequent bullying” at their schools.

This echoes the finding of a survey that was recently conducted by consumer insights company, Pondering Panda, among 7 324 pupils, teachers and community members.

A majority of the primary school children surveyed felt that bullying was the biggest problem in their schools.

When presenting the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study findings, director for the Centre for Evaluation and Assessments at the University of Pretoria’s faculty of education, Professor Sarah Howie, pointed out that bullying had a detrimental impact on pupils’ performance.

The findings of another study – the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timms) – conducted by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) were also released last week.

This study, also part of a series, was done last year among 45 countries.

In 42 countries Grade 8 pupils were assessed and in three countries – South Africa, Botswana and Honduras – Grade 9s were assessed.

When presenting the findings, Dr Vijay Reddy, executive director for the HSRC’s education and skills development research programme, said a trend analysis from 1995 to this year showed that South Africa’s national average score has remained on the same level over the years.

Reddy said what stood out from this study was the fact that the scores of the top pupils, who were mostly from independent former model C schools, ranked average when compared to marks scored by pupils in the highest achieving countries.

The top-scoring countries include Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Finland and the Russian Federation. South Africa, Botswana and Honduras were among the low scorers in maths and science.

Reddy said from 2002 to 2012 there has been an improvement in both subjects among South African pupils. The greatest improvement was among pupils from poor communities who had initially scored low marks.

“However, when it comes to quantity and quality of performance at the top level, South Africa is not globally competitive. The average scores for independent and (former model C) and quintile 5 schools all performed below the (international benchmark) score,” she said.

The Department of Basic Education welcomed the results from both reports, saying they indicated that maths and reading results are still exceptionally low.

In a statement released a day after the results were made public, the department said: “Although we are fully alive to the continuing challenges in the system, it is heartening to see that change and improvement are possible. Timms results show an upward trajectory since 2002.”

Especially gratifying was that the greatest improvements were “where we worked hardest and least expected it – in our poorest African schools and in provinces with large rural populations and troubled systems – the Eastern Cape and Limpopo”.

The Star