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HIGHER Education Minister Blade Nzimande has again admitted the government has failed to improve the quality of education to bridge gaps between schooling, tertiary education and the job market.

Nzimande conceded this while presenting his draft skills development plan to the Human Resource Development Council in Pretoria on Friday.

The 46-member council – launched in March 2010 and comprising ministers, their deputies, representatives from tertiary institutions and the private sector, among others – is chaired by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

Nzimande, whose department leads the high-level council, admitted education standards were still in the doldrums and did not adequately prepare pupils for tertiary education and a competitive work environment.

“Dropout levels are high… Youth unemployment remains high, with many young people not being absorbed into further and higher education or the world of work.

“This then leads to the societal challenges of unemployment and joblessness.”

He noted that the problems emanated from the foundation phase, critical in building a sufficient human resource development base for the country.

“In spite of continually increasing levels of spending on foundation phase education, the test results of learners in grades 3 to 6 remain some of the worst in the world.

“A majority of pupils entering the intermediate phase remain largely illiterate and experience difficulty as they progress through the system.”

He said less than half the pupils entering the foundation phase went on to write matric.

While pleased that Grade R enrolment had increased from 300 000 in 2003 to 705 000 last year, Nzimande said the current funding model needed to allocate more resources to early childhood centres in poorer, marginalised areas, including the 6 percent of children estimated to have special needs.

Challenges facing the schooling system were reflected in the quality of education for poor blacks, which “remained substandard” despite gains since 1994.

“Apart from a small minority of schools, the quality of public education remains poor, with only 1 percent of African schools that are top performing on high school certificate results, compared to 31 percent for formerly privileged schools.”

Assessments by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Progress in the International Reading Literacy Study international assessments over the past decade “point to difficulties with the quality of literacy and numeracy in our schools”.

The annual national assessments for numeracy and literacy in 2011 “paint a dismal picture”. In Grade 3, the national average performance in literacy was 35 percent, with numeracy at 28 percent. For Grade 6 the national average in languages was 28 percent, and maths averaged 30 percent.

“This is worrying precisely because the critical skills of literacy and numeracy are fundamental to further education and achievement in the worlds of both education and work.”