UNESCO Education For All (EFA) Country Profile

South Africa faced enormous educational changes with the end of official apartheid, including the adjustment of curricula to the needs of the entire population and the provision of education to many youth whose schooling had been interrupted.

The country has now virtually achieved universal primary education (with access at 118% and  completion at 93%), and has massified secondary education (enrollment stood at 95% and 80% for the first and second cycles in 2004/05). Furthermore, literacy rates are among the highest on the continent (98% for youth), preprimary enrollment has doubled since 2002, and gender parity is reasonable, at 96%.However, the quality of teaching is not among these many, significant and positive advances, and is widely recognized to be variable, an imbalance that the country is now trying to redress, particularly in favor of the African majority.

South Africa’s education pyramid clearly shows that the system is extremely close to providing universal coverage of basic education, with primary completion standing at close to 100%, and lower secondary enrollment at 95%. Although the transition to upper secondary is assured for the majority, drop-out during this cycle is still significant, and completion stood at just 45% in 2004/05. Furthermore, access to the tertiary level, possibly in part because secondary quality is poor, is probably too low to sustain a globalised economy.

The primary education policy indicator most worthy of mention relates to repetition, which stands at 8%, a high level for an Anglophone country. A possible explanation for this is that schools, under pressure to improve marks, have held students back, creating backlogs of repeaters.

Despite apparently favorable teaching conditions (the pupil-teacher ratio is just 32:1, well below the FTI target of 40:1) South Africa’s learning achievements are known to be low, especially at the secondary level. The variable quality of education is highlighted by standardized international test scores. In the SACMEQ 2007 evaluation, South African primary Grade 6 pupils scored below average in both reading and math, being outperformed by their counterparts from Botswana, Kenya, Swaziland and Tanzania. This is currently being addressed through a series of new initiatives aimed at improving quality, including the introduction of a new curriculum and strategies to support poorly performing schools.

Given South Africa’s favorable fiscal outlook (public resources represent a high 28% of GDP), there appears to be scope to increase the level of unit spending, especially at the secondary level where it is comparatively low (20% of GDP per capita, against 25% on average for SSA). Given the excellent coverage, further resources should especially be devoted to improving quality and learning outcomes.

Source: UNESCO EFA country profile