Children sign their names as part of a pledge to save water at Cape Town’s Prestwich Primary School. The writer says state schools that fail to give quality education will soon lose pupils. Picture: Cindy Waxa/African News Agency (ANA)
South African education is in crisis. Our children lag behind comparable countries in literacy and numeracy and it is an open question how well our schools prepare young people for the world of university or work.

Statistics show, for example, that a minority of students complete a three-year degree in the allotted time - only 29% of students whose first year was in 2011 graduated in three years.

The high rates of unemployment among young people also indicate that many are unprepared for life after school. The latest figures released by Statistics South Africa are terrifying. More than half of people aged between 15 and 24 are unemployed, rising to two-thirds under the expanded definition of unemployment (which includes discouraged work-seekers).

The last time less than half of people aged between 15 and 24 were in work was as long ago as the third quarter of 2015.

The statistics are damning and the outlook for South Africa is bleak.

Our schooling system is utterly failing to prepare people to be successful and productive citizens.

What should concern us greatly is that black children are the ones who suffer disproportionately from poor schooling outcomes. Quintile one schools, the country’s poorest, are attended by about 40% of black children and have the worst outcomes.

In 2016, the pass rate in quintile one schools was 62.5% (against an overall pass rate of 72.5%). The proportion of learners in quintile one schools passing well enough to go to university was 17% (against an overall university admission rate of about a quarter).

Outcomes in the richest - quintile five - schools were much better. The proportion of children passing matric in quintile five schools was over 90%, while more than half passed well enough to go to university.

Black children also have worse outcomes in key subjects compared with their coloured, Indian and white counterparts. For example, in the 2016 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations, only 28% of black learners managed a mark of above 40% in maths and only 9% above 60%.

By contrast, 86% of white learners managed marks above 40%, and more than half passed with 60% or above. The pattern was similar with regard to life sciences. For that subject, only 35% of black learners managed above 40% and 11% a mark above 60%.

The proportion of white learners passing with 40% or more was 80%, while just over half scored 60% or above.

The differences in throughput rates at university also shows that black learners fare worse. This is due to a combination of factors, but can partly be attributed to being ill-prepared at school.

Of black students who had enrolled for a three-year degree at university in 2011 (excluding the Unisa), less than a quarter had passed within the allotted three years. For white pupils the proportion was 43%. These low proportions for both white and black students indicate that most students are ill-prepared for the rigours of university, and this, at least partly, because of the poor preparation many students receive at school.

The evidence is clear - black pupils suffer disproportionately from the poor schooling system.

This has led to many parents abandoning the public school system as it becomes clear it is failing their children. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of children enrolled in state schools in South Africa grew from 11.6million to 12.3million - an increase of 6%.

Over the same period the country’s population grew by nearly 30%. The number of children enrolled in private schools, however, showed greater growth. Although coming off a much lower base, the number of children in independent schools grew by 130% in the 16-year period - from 256283 to 590352. A similar pattern is reflected in the number of schools. The number of state schools declined by 12% between 2000 and 2016, while the number of independent schools almost doubled, growing by 91% from 971 to 1855.

A criticism of South African private schools is that they are simply “Etons-on-the-Veld”, and available to the elite. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although there are many private schools whose fees could charitably be called “eye-watering”, most non-state schools charge fairly low fees, which are affordable to many parents. There are also many private schools in low-income areas which charge very low fees and are popular with parents. It is clear that people want choice in deciding where their children go to school, no matter what their income is.

In a free and open society, people should have choice and this includes choice in where they send their children to school. However, in a society where many struggle to afford fees to send their children to better-performing schools, what is the solution?

The Institute of Race Relations proposes the introduction of a voucher system, whereby parents are given a voucher for each of their children. This will be taken out of the education budget and will be to the value of about R12000. Parents will have more choice about where to send their children, and be able to use the voucher at private or state schools (Model C or otherwise).

State schools that fail to give children quality education will soon find themselves losing pupils and will be forced to shut down, unless they improve.

Giving parents more school choice will go some way in addressing the education crisis. This is the thrust of a campaign the IRR launched this week.

It is clear that, unless something is done, our schooling system will continue to leave young people (especially young black people) ill-prepared for the world of university and work, with dire consequences for the future of South Africa.

Marius Roodt is a campaign manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). For more details of the IRR’s campaign, go to irr.org.za/campaigns/giving-power-back-to-parents.