Jonathan Jansen: Our great reading crisis – what on earth is going on?

At exactly 11am on Tuesday a report placed under “strict embargo” was released, only to reveal the most devastating news yet on the state of schools in post-apartheid South Africa.

The Pirls (Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study) 2016 report gave the results of one of the most scientific studies yet done – 12 810 pupils were tested from 293 schools – on the state of reading among Grade 4 pupils in South Africa. Hold onto your seat. This study found that almost eight out of 10 children cannot read.

No really, 78% of children in the grade sound words, but do not understand the meaning of what they read.

If you think that statistic is terrifying, the report then announces that when compared with the 49 other countries in the study, South Africa is dead last – that’s right, 50th behind the likes of Iran and Kuwait. It gets even worse. Let’s follow the narrative of the comradely politicians in power when this kind of news appears – apartheid is to blame, but things are getting better because of the heroic efforts of the ANC-led government.

Well, this Pirls finding will deflate that kind of nonsense – reading scores have remained stagnant since 2011 and it seems that the scores for South African boys were actually worse in 2016 than when last measured.

And finally, not only are we swelling the ranks of underachievers at the bottom of the class of reading performance, we have even fewer children now achieving “high levels of reading achievement” than five years earlier in 2011. What on earth is going on? We can now state without fear of contradiction that this government’s track record on education has been an unmitigated failure.

We have had dozens of educational reforms, many of which experimented dangerously with the lives of pupils and also teachers.

Think of the fiasco associated with outcomes-based education or the effective closure of the outstanding training colleges that prepared primary school teachers or the failure to deliver high quality technical colleges that prepared artisans and technologists for the demands of the 21st century workplace.

None of this has changed the foundations of education in South Africa.

Two decades of democracy and what do we have to show for it when it comes to reading literacy? Nothing. “The reading crisis is deeper than we thought,” Nic Spaull, of Stellenbosch University, notes in reference to the fact that an earlier and less robust study put the figure at 58% of children who could not “read for meaning”.

What makes this crisis so serious is that reading enables other achievements among children.

Reading is, moreover, a proxy for the overall health of the school system.

A child who can read well in a language class can also understand texts in a science or economics class.

A child who can understand what she reads is able to make connections between real and abstract things, something essential for advanced learning.

A child with reading competency is also more confident in her overall intellectual abilities. A child who reads well often speaks well.

When an overwhelming majority of our children cannot read deeply in Grade 4, the knock-on effects for later learning can be very serious for the individual child, for schools and ultimately for society.

The government’s response to this abysmal state of education is not to raise the education standard but to lower it.

Politics demands that the numbers passing look good in the short term, regardless of the long-term consequences for families and for the economy.

Just last week, a teacher I know well called to tell me that they were instructed to allow children in English first language to pass with 30% (instead of 40%) and that children who fell a few points short of the low passing mark should be progressed anyway.

Nothing in writing, for such a leak would be so embarrassing, officials move around whispering what is expected as they operate under heavy pressure from their seniors to make the schools look good.

What a pathetic government we have, trading its own political interests for the lives of children.

The next government has no choice but to make the foundations of education (pre- and primary education) the single most important priority for the next decade.

Central to that focus has to be a national literacy and numeracy campaign ideally located within the president’s office and managed through the Department of Basic Education.

National and provincial budgets must reflect this priority, and the campaign must be driven by experts (not deployees) in reading, writing and maths working with clear targets for performance in these areas.

Forget the matric results and pay less attention to the incessant demands from universities.

We cannot build a just education system based on who makes the loudest noise.

For without strong foundations of learning the rest of the system crumbles anyway – as we know.

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