Despite significant budget expenditure for the education sector, South Africa has made little progress in meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. While international organizations have warned that the number of out-of-school children tripled in the pandemic period, official sources have pointed out that the pandemic was not the only reason for the downward trend with statistics highlighting significant setbacks in the sector even before the advent of COVID-19.
Meeting SDG4 is seen as the solution to South Africa’s chronic challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality. However, in a 2022 press release, UNICEF noted that “the number of out-of-school children in South Africa tripled from 250,000 to 750,000 between March 2020 and July 2021”.
COVID-19 restrictions are not only to blame
South Africa implemented strict pandemic-related lockdown measures during the aforementioned period with the aim of curbing the spread of coronavirus by severely restricting movement. This included the closure of schools for more than two months. It is, however, worth noting that out-of-school children are defined as children of primary- and secondary school age not enrolled in education which is not the same as schoolchildren whose schools remain partially or fully closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Dr. Stephen Taylor, Director for Research at the Department of Basic Education, said:
“We have now begun to measure COVID-19-related learning losses in South Africa by comparing how much children learned in 2020 with how much they learned in a normal school year before that. These measures indicate that between 50% and 75% of a normal year’s worth of learning was lost during 2020.”
The reality, however, is that there was little likelihood of South Africa meeting UN SDG 4 even without the setbacks brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its Children’s education and well-being in South Africa report, which looks at education trends for the period 2014 to 2018 among 0-17-year-olds, Statistics South Africa noted that approximately 43% of youngsters below the age of six did not attend any educational institution in 2018.
The data shows that it is at the primary school level, for children aged 6 to 13, that the country achieves the highest school-going population of 91%.
School drop-out rate of 46%
Just under 50% of learners who started Grade 1 were still in the education system by Grade 12, according to the Education section of the South African National Treasury’s Provincial Budgets and Expenditure review: 2015/16 – 2022/23.
Specifically, 1,122,114 children enrolled for their first year of formal schooling in 2008 and of that number only 606,208 were still in the education system in Grade 12, the final year of schooling in 2019. A 42.4% school drop-out rate was noted between Grade 10 (1,052,080 learners in 2017) and Grade 12.
In 2021, close to 3% of 15-year-olds and nearly 9% of 17-year-olds dropped out of school. The General Household Survey 2021, released by Statistics South Africa, also shows worrying trends at secondary school level, with a drop-out rate of 29.3% for 18-year-old learners and a 46.3% for 19-year-old learners.
While the reasons for this are manifold, the most common were illness and disability (22.7%), poor academic performance (21.2%) and lack of finances (19.6%). The child support grant provided by the South African government has an age cap and in 2018 more than two-thirds of children aged 0–17 (68.2%) received the child support grant, according to Statistics South Africa.
Interestingly, education takes up the lion’s share of the government’s annual budget expenditure. During the 2018/19 financial year, the government spent R256.9 billion (about US$15 billion), equating to 13.9% of its overall expenditure or 4.7% of GDP, on Grade R-12 education. In the current financial year, which comes to a close at the end of February 2023, spending on basic education is expected to be 5% of GDP or 14.2% of overall government expenditure.
Despite the education sector accounting for the single largest percentage of government expenditure in the country, by its own admission “South Africa’s performance on international standards is of concern and needs to be given special attention”.