South Africa’s education sector has been accused of being broken. Paul Esterhuizen, CEO of the education rewards incentives programme School-Days, unpacks the trends most likely to have an impact on education in the year ahead.
Budget cuts mean the public education system will continue to be under pressure
A growing population has resulted in increased school enrolments. However, although the national budget allocation for education grew by 5.7% in the 2023/2024 national budget, education expenditure was due to increase by 7.2%, indicating a shortfall. What this means is that most schools can’t afford to employ additional teachers which has resulted in higher learner-teacher ratios.
Between 2012 and 2021 several small, primarily rural schools, were closed as enrolments decreased. This has had a knock-on effect of increasing the number of learners at public schools by 14% on average. Many public schools continue to have inadequate infrastructure including a lack of reliable electricity and water supply.
Exacerbating the challenge of declining budgets is wasteful expenditure by the Department of Basic Education. The Auditor-General says the department is the third highest wasteful spender of all government departments with R5.7 billion spent irregularly between 2018 and 2021.
An ageing teacher population is a looming crisis
The number of teachers aged 50 years and older has been rising steadily for more than a decade. This means that a significant proportion of the country’s teacher population will be retiring in the next few years. Schools need to fill these vacant posts with suitably trained and qualified individuals to avoid class sizes growing any larger. However, provincial departments of education continue to under-hire as a result of constrained budgets as they struggle to afford teacher salary increases.
Poor education outcomes
South Africa’s public education system has been criticised for its poor educational outcomes relative to its peer countries despite spending relatively more on education. Amongst the many challenges facing the education system are teachers who often lack sufficient subject matter knowledge. This is a particular challenge when it comes to mathematics and science. More than half of teachers also don’t meet the benchmark requirements for literacy. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues with a report published by the 2030 Reading Panel earlier this year finding that fewer children can read for meaning than before the pandemic with the majority of children entering grade two not knowing the alphabet. In 2021, South Africa ranked last out of an assessment of 57 countries assessed in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study which tested the reading ability of 400 000 learners from around the world. Interventions to address these shortcomings have not been consistently applied, resulting in a mixed bag of results.
Fee-paying parents struggling to pay school fees
A growing number of parents are struggling to afford school fees given high interest rates and the increased cost of living. Various credit rating indices point to the financial pressure faced by households, particularly those that are indebted. TransUnion’s SA Consumer Credit Index, for example, fell sharply in the first half of 2023 to 39. The index considers consumer credit health to be at a breakeven with a score of 50. This is the lowest level on record for the index, indicating that credit conditions worsened considerably. TransUnion points out that with the prime rate at its highest since 2008, the repayment burden of borrowing has risen substantially with “most of the pressure on consumer credit health … concentrated on the highly indebted”.
Experian’s second-quarter Consumer Default Index, which tracks the increase in consumer first payment default, mirrors TransUnion’s findings. Its index found that consumer default rates have increased steadily over the past six quarters across all consumer affluence segments, highlighting just how challenging the economic environment has become.
Non-payment of school fees has dire consequences for private schools and fee-paying public schools, impacting their ability to provide learners with quality education and ultimately, threatening their very sustainability. It also means that the career path for teachers is more challenging than ever.
The School-Days programme was established to address the issue of affordable education by helping parents to pay their children’s school fees. Essentially using a rewards and incentives methodology, the programme encourages members to shop with partner merchants known as School-Days Earn Partners, while still earning their normal retailer loyalty points. Partners include Dis-Chem, Baby City, Standard Bank UCount, Jet, TFG, NetFlorist, The Harvest Table, and Booking.com. Members earn Education-Time Points (ETPs) to help pay for school, college, and university fees.
‘Plan to Pay’, an innovative product that allows families to plan for the cost of their child’s educational journey, was launched earlier this year in partnership with Standard Bank’s UCount Rewards. Plan to Pay makes it possible for parents, guardians, and family members to purchase the School-Days currency, either as a once-off purchase or via monthly debit orders with the provision that Education-Time Points may only be used to be used to pay for any school, college or university fees in South Africa in the future. School-Days members can accumulate as much – or as little – as they can afford via Plan to Pay, making it the most flexible education funding platform currently available. School-Days members can easily view and track their Edu-Time Points via the user-friendly School-Days Plan to Pay app.
Independent schools under pressure
Although they make up less than 10% of all schools in SA, independent schools play an important role in the education sector, alleviating pressure on the over-burdened public education sector. Between 2012 and 2021, independent schools grew from 6.1% to 8.7% with most of the growth in Gauteng, the Western Cape and North West. The growth of independent schools has primarily been fuelled by concerns about growing class sizes and deteriorating quality at public schools. However, affordability is starting to have an impact on this sector.
Many private schools around the country have fond memories of full classrooms and waiting lists for acceptance. I would hazard a guess that it’s now possible to get a learner of any age into any grade at any private school and this trend is likely to accelerate in 2024.
The growth of online schools
It’s likely that online schools will be picking up the slack amongst those parents who can no longer afford the fees at an independent school but who still want their children to benefit from a quality education. Parents looking for an online school need to do their homework and ensure the school they have selected is legitimate. Earlier this year, Umalusi, a council that sets standards for general and further education and training in South Africa, published a statement warning parents of ‘bogus’ online schools. The government has announced its intention to regulate and provide quality assurance for online schools.
BELA Bill to face increased scrutiny in 2023
The Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA Bill) has faced strident criticism from education stakeholders for disempowering schools and communities, for failing to address the systemic challenges faced by the education sector, and that its intention to centralise power in the National Department of Education risks abuse. Homeschooling is one of the stated targets of the bill with critics arguing that the government is over-reaching.
Many of the challenges facing the education sector can be resolved. What is required is strong leadership, a common vision for the future of the sector, and a roadmap with implementable action plans. What we can’t afford to do is allow standards to decline for yet another year.