Run on numbers: When it comes to education, our leaders must learn to value our children

While only a third of South African Grade 6 learners (36%) could read and make inferences, this was much higher in Kenya (53%) and Swaziland (51%), despite them being much poorer than South Africa. File photo.

While only a third of South African Grade 6 learners (36%) could read and make inferences, this was much higher in Kenya (53%) and Swaziland (51%), despite them being much poorer than South Africa. File photo.

Published Jun 1, 2024


The release of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021 results in May 2023 revealed that 81% of South African Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in any language.

South Africa experienced the largest declines of all countries who participated in the study in 2016 and 2021, with learners in 2021, 50 to 60% behind 2016’s Grade 4 learners.

Pirls is an international assessment and research project designed to measure reading achievement at the fourth-grade level, as well as school and teacher practices related to instruction.

1. Aspects of Student Well-Being and Reading Achievement in Pirls 2021 on learning in the foundation phase and beyond.

Learner Well-Being in Pirls 2021

The Pirls 2021 Student Questionnaire collected data relating to several variables and scales that could serve as indicators of learners’ subjective well-being in school. The indicators cover several important aspects of subjective well-being but do not cover all components of the construct. The indicators available through Pirls 2021 cover a range of factors related to learners’ affective and physical states, which, in turn, could be related to well-being. The exhibits presented in the following sections showcase relationships between the indicators and learners’ reading achievement. The exhibits include:

  • Learners’ sense of school belonging.
  • Learner bullying.
  • Learners report arriving at school feeling tired.
  • Learners report arriving at school feeling hungry.
  • Frequency of learners absences.
  • Profiles of learners well-being.

2. One of the biggest developmental challenges facing the country is that many South African children are unable to read for meaning.

Results from the Pirls study show that 81% of South African learners in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning. In fact, South Africa scored significantly lower than the centre point of the Pirls IRLS scale – 288 compared to 500. What is possibly more concerning is that 56% of South African Grade 6 learners cannot read for meaning when tested on the same Grade 4 Pirls evaluation.

3. How far behind are we?

Although it is true that reading outcomes are correlated with a country’s overall level of wealth and in wealthy countries all children learn to read, it is also true that for a given level of gross domestic product (GDP) per-capita there are large differences between countries. For example, Iran and South Africa have the same GDP-per-capita yet 65% of Grade 4s in Iran can read compared to 22% of Grade 4s in South Africa (using the same test translated into local languages).

Similarly, the SACMEQ 2013 study showed that South African Grade 6 learners perform worse than Grade 6 learners in Kenya or Swaziland. While only a third of South African Grade 6 learners (36%) could read and make inferences, this was much higher in Kenya (53%) and Swaziland (51%), despite them being much poorer than South Africa.

4. This is not to say that there are no programmes or policies related to reading, only that they are government policies. It distinguishes between three elements of a policy: whether it is announced, whether it is funded and whether any planning went into formulating the policy. For example, a policy such as the National School Nutrition Programme, which is one of the most successful policies, was planned and funded with a budget of (R8 billion a year).

Although 21 of the 57 participating countries showed a decline in results because of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa scored significantly lower than all of them in the Grade 4 tests. In fact, South Africa had the largest decline in reading outcomes, with our learners lagging more than 3 years behind Brazilian children. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga’s comments on the concerning results show the ANC government’s lack of accountability for the situation it created. She said: “In many South African primary schools, reading instruction often focuses solely on oral performance, neglecting reading comprehension and making sense of written words.”

5. A panel of experts and civil society leaders has been convened to ensure all South African children can read by 2030. The panel, established by former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, was formed in response to “the dire need to improve reading outcomes among South Africa’s foundation phase (grades 1 to 3) school children”. The web page of the initiative can be accessed at

The panel comprises a list of impressive and prominent names. The 19 respected individuals, from a range of backgrounds, have the experience and expertise to help shed light on what is needed to improve literacy in South Africa. They include Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Elinor Sisulu, Professor Michael Sachs and Bobby Godsell.

The panel said it would provide long-term apolitical leadership to improve reading and maths at South African schools. “The panel’s goal is to review whether or not South Africa is on track to reach the 2030 goal, and what needs to change to ensure we do get there. That includes reviewing government plans and spending priorities to determine whether there is sufficient attention and resources allocated to this critical issue,” it said.

6. President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister Motshekga have stated that reading is a priority.

Symbolic policies: By contrast, almost all the policies that have been introduced to improve reading outcomes can best be described as symbolic or slogans, that is, ones that are announced but lack planning or funding. Reviewing the Basic Education Budget Vote and speeches from 2017 to 2021 reveal that there are some examples of reading initiatives that are mentioned: (a) the Read to Lead Campaign, (b) the Drop All and Read Campaign, (c) the 1000 School Libraries Campaign, (d) the Book Flood Campaign, (e) Reading Clubs, (f) Spelling Bees, (g) Early Grade Reading Assessment Training, (e) the President’s Reading Circle. In each case, there are no meaningful budgets attached to the realisation of the goal, that is, no budget to fund the libraries or the books children might read.

A good example of a lack of planning and balancing of priorities is former president Jacob Zuma’s announcement of free tertiary funding. Between 2019 and 2022, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme disbursed R123 billion worth of loans for 2 918 624 beneficiaries. How can a country score so low in the world when it comes to reading for meaning at Grade 4 level yet spend this extraordinary amount on tertiary studies?

Zama Mthombeni, the chief researcher in the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa’s Equitable Education and Economies division, stated in a study: “Theoretical ideas of bridging inequalities and alleviating poverty with subsidised education need to be upheld and supported by systematic research and data. Through rigorous qualitative content analysis grounded in scholarly literature, this research not only advances academic understanding, but also serves as a valuable resource for shaping future educational policies that are equitable, sustainable, and supportive of societal progress.”

Some political parties have called for Motshekga’s dismissal, stating that she was continuously failing generations of learners and in the 14 years she has been minister, there had been massive regression and little progress.

Much greater focus must be placed on ensuring that learners’ foundational knowledge is solid. It is time the department ensured that teachers become experts at teaching their subjects and that they have all the resources necessary to ensure learners’ success through a catch-up plan, budget for reading and vigorous implementation in all languages to improve reading for meaning and quality education.

7. There is, however, a serious development that does not augur well for the near time future.

Once the elections are a thing of the past, voters must insist that politicians value our children as much as we, the parents, do. Most parents give their all for their children. Our school system must not fail them. We cannot afford another day nor speak of decades of talk and no action.

* Kruger is an independent analyst.

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Personal Finance or Independent Newspapers.