By Gontse “GEe” Hlophe

A vibrant education system is the basis of a nation’s growth and prosperity. Primary education is the initial stage of formal education where education is not about learning facts but more so about how to think.

Nelson Mandela famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. It seemed fitting that the quote has been used in almost every ceremony that includes the education system in South Africa.

In the last decade, India has made a rapid progress in reinforcing its primary education system but South Africa is still in limbo.

South Africa is failing many of the young people when it comes to education system. Although it has made significant progress since post apartheid in widening access this has not always translated into a quality education for all pupils.

The system continues to dogged by stark inequalities and chronic underperformance that have deep roots in the legacy of the apartheid, but which are also not being effectively tackled by the current government.

“The education system is our biggest system in the country. South Africa has nearly 26 000 schools, 400 000 teachers, and close to 13 million learners. Everyone’s been to school, so they all have an opinion around how to fix education.  But the logistics behind it are enormous,” said the Chief Executive of the New Leaner Foundation, Gilles Gillett.

The primary education in South Africa is continuing to take strain as the government attempts to achieve equal opportunities for all. The system is divided into 3 strata, namely the general education training and,  further education and training,  and higher education and training.

The process is compulsory through to grade 9, spans 12 grades in total. The first 6 years are spent in primary where literacy and numeracy are established.

However, 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. This statistic is mentioned everywhere when it comes to the state of the country’s education. It means that 4 out of 5 10 year olds cannot understand what they are reading. In Limpopo, this is as higher as 91%. In Eastern Cape its 85%. It’s in this early stage that many learners get lifted behind.

“My child repeated Grade 4 twice and I could not understand why this was happening. I tried checking his books and as usual help with his school work like homework and projects but the results were the same when I receive the report card.

“One friend of mine suggested that I go to the nearest clinic to consult to check my son’s mental state and discovered that he needs to attend a special school as he’s not like the rest of the learners. The teachers in primary level are not as qualified as expected to be because we found out that 12 learners from my son’s school have the same challenge but not even 1 teacher spotted that,”said a parent of a 13 year old, Gladys Tshwene.

Primary education is called elementary education. In a nutshell, it provides students with a basic understanding of various basic subjects as well as, the skills they will use throughout their lives. It fosters learning process and focuses on strategies, which assists learners in developing their creative and critical thinking.

The transformation of education begins with teachers. A shortage of quality teachers and the consequent ongoing delivery of poor educational outcomes are just a tip of an iceberg when it comes to the challenge facing the basic education in South Africa.

The crisis is set to worsen in the next coming years as more than half of the current teachers population is over 55 years of age and will soon be heading to retirement, notes School-Days, a fundraising programme.

Primary education provides learning and educational activities typically designed to provide students with fundamental skills in reading, writing and mathematics and establish a solid foundation for learning and understanding core areas of acknowledge and personal development, preparing for lower secondary education. It focuses on learning at a basic level of complexity with little, If any, specialization.

“Given the long-term impact of education on the economy, we need urgent interventions to improve educational outcomes. This will require the political will to implement meaningful reforms,  potentially rethinking how education is delivered and moving the focus away from merely covering a prescribed curriculum to encouraging mastery of that curriculum.

“We need to be attracting high quality candidates to the teaching profession and to ” rethink how we train and support our teachers.  We need to find ways to alleviate pressure on over-subscribed schools in the public sector and harness the power of technology deliver quality education at scale,” asserts CEO of School-Days, Paul Esterhuizen.

The government is working to improve access to quality education but there are still many challenges. In rural areas, schools are often under-resourced and lack qualified teachers. This results in large class sizes and a lack of individual attention for students.

In addition, schools in South Africa must contend with the issue of safety. Many schools are located in areas with high crime rate, and learners often face or experience violence. As a results, many students do not feel safe at schools and are reluctant to attend.

The South African education is facing a variety of challenges but the government is working to improve the state of the country’s educational system and access to quality education for all.

“It’s bad. It just it,” said Malehlohonolo Khauoe about the education she received at the rural schools just outside Matatiele in South Africa’s Eastern Cape,  the country’s worst performing region.  Schooling there was just so inferior that the national education ministry took over its management.

The 19 year old is one of its million victims. When pressed to describe what is so bad about her school, she said the “problem is mostly with teachers, since primary level” and that caught up with her in high school.

Gugulethu Xhala, 20 is from the same village but went to a different school in the area. She agrees, “teachers sometimes just talk about whatever, nothing to do with education, and it is something that starts from as early as primary school and you only realize once you graduate to high school that this becomes a pattern. They are not monitored to make sure they are doing a good job.

Both women have dropped out , Xhala after Grade 8 and Khauoe in the middle of Grade 11 when she fell pregnant.  Neither has a job and without a decent education their prospects are bleak and relocated to Soweto all in the name of finding a better living standard.

“I don’t necessarily think primary education curriculum is that of a challenge for our children, because I have 3 children who went to the same primary school but they all turned different. Not that I’m expecting my children to be leanered the same way but there’s a drastical change when it comes to teachers of this age.

“I don’t think they are passionate about teaching or have patience when it comes to these children. The government need to pay attention to the teachers because if the teachers get it wrong now at a primary level it will affect our children’s life throughout their tertiary level if they are lucky to go as far as that,” said a parent to a 9 year old learner, Koketso Matla.

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