Pay gap still starts in schools

By Jabulani Sikhakhane Time of article published Jan 5, 2012

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A high school friend use to say that to be born black under apartheid meant starting life being buried 2m below the earth and having to spend a big chunk of one’s life digging oneself out. By the time one did catch the first breath of fresh air, one would be close to retirement.

That has changed, but not by much. Just take a look at the set of matric results announced this week. They are as good a mirror of the present day and future SA as you will ever get.

The first set of results, announced on Tuesday, were those under the auspices of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB), which represents private schools, the cream of this country’s education.

The next were those of the Basic Education Department, which can be described as the whey of SA’s education.

The entire education system caters for 14 million learners, 12 million of whom are in ordinary schools. Of those in ordinary schools, 96 percent are in public schools. The remaining two million are in independent schools, further education and training colleges and public universities.

The outcomes reflected by these two sets of results will continue into the world of work, with the students who wrote the IEB exams moving on to the top of the income ladder as professionals who determine whether South Africa will grow at 3 percent or at 5 percent. The majority of the students from public schools will be condemned to the unemployment queue and, if they are lucky, the bottom of the income ladder.

These outcomes are confirmed by UCT economists who point to the differences in pay in the labour market as the biggest explanatory factor in rising income inequality in South Africa.

“Not only did wage income remain the driver of total income inequality, but its contribution to income inequality increased over the period,” wrote Haroon Bhorat, Carlene van der Westhuizen and Toughedah Jacobs in a paper published in 2010.

Bhorat is UCT economics professor and director of the university’s Development Policy Research Unit (DPRU), while Van der Westhuizen is senior researcher and Jacobs a researcher at the DPRU.

“The increasing levels of wage inequality were mainly explained by the increasing wage differential between the 90th and 50th percentiles, rather than the wage differential between the top and bottom of the wage income distribution,” the UCT economists said. “The increasing gap in wages between the 90th and 50th percentiles can partly be explained by the ever-increasing skill premium paid to highly skilled workers.”

The findings of the DPRU have since been echoed by the National Planning Commission, which said last year that good education provided access to the top end of the labour market and facilitated social mobility.

Poor education, on the other hand, perpetuated the skills shortage at the top, forcing wages up.

“The large number of low-skilled workers depresses wages at the bottom end. This combination contributes to the exceptionally high level of income inequality in SA,” the commission said.

A paper by University of Stellenbosch economists also mirrors the work of the UCT team.

Gideon du Rand, Hendrik van Broekhuizen and Dieter von Fintel of the University of Stellenbosch Economics Department sought to quantify the effect of numeric abilities and school quality on unexplained racial differences in wages.

“Approximately 18.6 percent of the white-African racial wage gap is accounted for by numeric ability differences, while separate analyses show that school quality accounts for about 36 percent of this measure of discrimination,” they found. “These figures suggest that labour market discrimination has a large component that is inherited from factors that are already in place before entrants start to work.”

Du Rand and his colleagues also found that success in the workplace was not only a factor of the level and quality of one’s education, but also how confident one was in converting given schooling achievements and abilities into a higher earning job.

The Stellenbosch team also highlighted the fact that even though per capita government expenditure on education is now equal across race groups, the gap in outcomes remains wide.

Education gets the single largest share of the budget and average allocations per pupil have increased from R6 295 in 2005/06 to R11 192 in 2010/11. This has resulted in the equalisation of per capita government expenditure between races, but differences in expenditure remain between private and public schools.

Hence the conclusion by the Stellenbosch economists that South Africa should focus on increasing access to quality education in order to reduce skills shortages and skills inequalities.

All’s not lost though, as the performance of some students from very poor homes has shown over the years.

Research by the Institute of Education at the University of London found last year that disadvantaged children who beat the odds of social and economic disadvantage did so because of the role played by parents, teachers, networks of family and friends as well as the children themselves.

The research by Iram Siraj-Blatchford highlighted the importance of recruiting the best teachers for schools in poor neighbourhoods, but also the role of parents in setting and reinforcing high standards for behaviour and academic aspirations.

“Even if parents did not have much money or high levels of education, they strongly believed in their own ability to support their children’s learning,” said Siraj-Blatchford.

The importance of education extends way beyond just the labour market.

“Education empowers people to define their identity, take control of their lives, raise healthy families, take part confidently in developing a just society and play an effective role in the politics and governance of their communities,” the National Planning Commission said last year.

So, the matric results announced this week are a mirror image of the kind of society South Africa is today and will be for some time to come. Despite tons of money being thrown at the education system, black children are still born buried 2m below the earth and they will have to dig themselves up to catch their first fresh breath of socio-economic air.

l Jabulani Sikhakhane is the group political editor for Independent Newspapers.

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