Broken and UnEqual - The State of Education in South Africa

South Africa is one of the richest countries in Africa with an estimated GDP of over US$368 billion based on a diversified economy of mining, agriculture, manufacturing, energy financial services, tourism and other sectors. It is the most industrialized country in Africa and has the second largest economy after Nigeria. The World Bank classifies South Africa as an upper middle-income country. Since the transition to democracy, South Africa has made considerable progress in lifting people’s income above the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day. According to World Bank estimates, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in South Africa fell from 33.8% in 1996 to 18.8% in 2015 (although this subsequently rose to 18.9% by 2018). However, South Africa also has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. The Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, rose from 0.61 in 1996 to 0.63 in 2015, signalling an increase in inequality. According to World Bank estimates, in 2015 the richest 10% of the population held around 71% of net wealth while the bottom 60% held just 7%. Intergenerational mobility remains low, so inequalities are passed down from generation to generation with little change in inequality over time. There is a strong correlation between race and economic inequality with black South African households earning on average less than 20 per cent of white household average earnings. Education can play a positive role in reducing inequality. In the past two decades, South Africa has done well to expand access to education for black children at all levels, but this has not always meant good quality education for all. As a result, the education system continues to mirror the country’s socio-economic inequalities. A recent survey of school principals across OECD countries reported that 71% of South African teachers work in schools with over 30% of socio-economically disadvantaged students, more than treble the OECD average of 20%. Another indicator of deprivation is that 77.3% of learners who attend public schools benefit from school feeding schemes. In terms of quality of education South Africa has one of the most unequal school systems in the world, with the widest gap between the test scores of the top 20% of schools and the rest. Furthermore, studies have also criticised the quality of South Africa’s education system. A 2015 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey ranked South Africa 75th of 76 countries based on its overall education system. A 2017 international survey revealed that 97% of Grade 4 children (aged 8-9) in South Africa scored the lowest of the 50 participating countries in a reading and literacy test, with 78% of the students unable to read for meaning. In 2018 the top 200 high schools in the country (3% of schools) had more students achieving distinctions in Mathematics matric (80%+) than the remaining 6,600 combined (97%).