Zero-sum game: Number of pupils per class in SA has shot up
Poor families spend a sixth of their household income on education, but the quality of schooling has fallen
It’s a basic mathematical sum, but one which has put tens of thousands of kids in SA on the back foot: the number of children enrolling in school surged after HIV treatment was rolled out, but the total amount invested in their education remained the same.
The result: classes got bigger, expenditure per child declined by 7% every year every year since 2010, and the country’s performance in international assessments has dropped.
This was revealed in The Child Gauge 2018, a comprehensive report on the lives of children in SA released on Tuesday by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town.
Between 2003 and 2006 there was a 13% increase in births. So when enrolment happened for Grade 1, from 2009 to 2015, numbers surged, according to the report.
“A 13% increase in births from 2003 to 2006 (attributed to the rollout of HIV treatment), resulted in a corresponding increase in Grade 1 enrolments, from 2009 to 2015 – with the ‘surge’ reaching Grade 8s in 2018,” the authors of the report said.
In 2011 the average size of a grade 4 class was 40 kids. Just five years later it was 45.
“The largest increases were found in the poorest 60% of schools, where class sizes increased from 41 to 48 learners, while class sizes only increased from 33 to 35 in the richest 10% of schools,” said lead researcher Linda Richter and her team in the chapter that looks at education.
While fees have been eliminated from about 80% of public schools, “this has not had a significant impact on school enrolment or educational attainment among teenagers beyond the compulsory schooling age (namely, over 15 years of age)”.
Uniforms, stationery, food and transport are out-of-pocket costs which are prohibitive for many families, even without fees in the picture.
Poor families are “estimated to spend a sixth of their household income on schooling costs” – a far higher proportion than in any better-resourced family.
Several markers highlight the dire inequality of children growing up in SA in vastly different socioeconomic groups.
For example 64% of kids at fee-paying schools have a mother who is educated beyond matric. For those at non-fee-paying schools, it is only 37%.
A third of kids at fee-paying schools have a parent with a professional occupation, whereas for their non-fee-paying counterparts it is only about a tenth. Also, 87% of the former come from homes with flushing toilets, whereas only 41% of the non-fee-payers have that basic right.
Thobeka Mhlophe (not her real name), said: “I work as a domestic in the suburbs. The children in the family I clean for have a good life at the school. I see their books and uniform and everything. My grandchildren are nearly the same ages. But their life is different. Their pencils are few and the clothes from cheap stores don’t last. I don’t say I am cross for that – the family where I work give the school shoes and the white shirts when they don’t fit any more so they are kind. But you just see each and every day the big difference and you feel sad knowing we are so long ago from apartheid but it’s like this.”
The most “important path” for individuals to escape poverty, said the researchers, “is education”, and this is “recognised by both families and the state”.
A more prosperous and equal society would result from education breaking that cycle.
“Bolstered by scientific evidence, it is well accepted that the foundations for learning are laid down in early childhood. However, socioeconomic inequalities can undermine the early development of children from the poorest families, and poor quality schooling can further entrench inequality through incomplete education and low paid work, creating a cycle of disadvantage for the next generation,” said the researchers.
The families that are able to overcome the odds are “a reminder that this can be done on a large scale, given the right improvements to the education system, greater engagement with and by families, and early identification and support for children with barriers to learning.”
• The annual report is published by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, alongside the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, University of the Witwatersrand, Unicef South Africa and the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation.