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Why SAB should take over education in SA

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The dire state of South Africa’s schools is well documented, but while much has been said about the poor quality of our education in general, and our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in particular, there is an increasing crisis that has not been spoken about enough – what poor literacy will mean to us as a country.

Piles of school textbooksThis issue first came to the fore when the results of the international PIRLS 2016 literacy tests were releases. The tests, taken by nearly 13 000 South African school children, showed that 78% of grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language. South Africa scored last of the 50 countries tested.

Over the last three decades, cognitive neuroscience has proven beyond doubt that reading alters the brain. Learning the visual representation of language and the rules for matching sounds and letters develops new language processing possibilities. It reinforces and modifies certain fundamental abilities, such as verbal and visual memory and other crucial skills. It influences the pathways used by the brain for problem-solving.

The fact that South African children are effectively illiterate, despite being at school, means that any focus on improving the STEM subjects – which are crucial as the world moves further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution – is wasted, as these learners will have significant gaps in their ability to process the information they are being taught.

While government keeps putting “plans” in place to improve education, civil society has done what it always does when a problem is highlighted: step up to try fill the gaps. There are a number of mobile libraries that have sprung up around the country, calls for the donation of books for schools, and even a “Help a South African School” scheme where Primary schools around the UK donate unwanted English language books.

This initiative has been running for a number of years, and 1 100 boxes of books were donated from 80 different schools last year. While laudable, the fact that South African schools have to rely on donations from UK schools is a terrible indictment on the country’s attitude to reading. South Africa is awash with corporate responsibility projects and charities, and yet only 7% of South African schools have libraries.

Of course, this is not even taking into consideration the fact that many school children can’t practice their reading skills on textbooks, because getting those to students has been a challenge over the past few years. A wag on Facebook recently came up with a solution, entitled “food for thought”.

“Apparently there are around 26 000 shebeens in South Africa. Every week SAB successfully delivers enough crates of beer to every one of them. There are also around 26 000 schools in the country, and despite a full year’s planning, the government is still unable to supply textbooks to all of them…The solution is simple…To eliminate alcoholism, get the Department of Education to deliver the beer. To improve education, get SAB to deliver the textbooks,” the post read.

While South Africa has a number of socio-economic ills that need to be cured, perhaps the focus should start with 7, 8, 9, and 10 year olds who will have no hope of leaving the cycle of poverty because, to put it simplistically, they were not taught to read properly. Perhaps the Facebook wag is right, and SAB should take over the running of the Department of Education. Whatever the solution, it needs to happen sooner rather than later, as we risk another generation of children who are doomed to jobs as unskilled labourers despite the fact that they completed 12 years of so-called “education”.

Image credit: Copyright: irenmoroz / 123RF Stock Photo

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