The South African economy grew just 0.3% in 2016. The IMF suggests growth in 2017 will be only 0.8%, rising to 1.6% in 2018. Slow growth has severe consequences. Unemployment rises, living standards decline. Tax revenue grows very slowly, limiting the government's ability to assist those most affected by economic stagnation. Few would dispute that education is critical for achieving sustainable rapid growth. Stanford University's Eric Hanushek recently went so far as to suggest that "the only thing that matters for a country is the skills of its people". He notes that "countries that have lots of skills grow faster than countries that have low skills" and that countries where skills are very low "are just not growing in the long run". The education received by most South Africans is very poor indeed. This is evidenced by SA's weak performance in international benchmark tests, continued poor manic results, and the reality that many of its children never even make it as far as matric. With matric being an entrance requirement to most further education and training, the consequence is that most South Africans are lowskilled. This severely damages their prospects of ever obtaining a job. The weaknesses of the education system are multifaceted. They include poorly trained and demotivated teachers, bureaucratic inefficiency and often the dire poverty in which children grow up. These daunting barriers often lead to a mistaken conviction that education cannot be fixed until all our other societal problems are solved. It is also argued that until education improves in the lower grades, it is impossible to change outcomes at the senior grades. Improving education is therefore inevitably a slow process that will take decades. Fortunately, there is evidence that this need not be the case. Appropriate, targeted interventions can improve pupil and school performance drastically, even if the education system itself is functioning poorly. Examples of such success can be found across SA. One example is the Gadra Matric School (GMS) in Grahamstown. The GMS is a "secondchance" school for pupils who failed matric or, did not achieve the marks required to go on to university or postschool training. The GMS selects its pupils carefully. The key is core language and numeracy ability as well as potential to break through in a few critical subjects. So pupils rewrite only a handful of subjects, replacing their weakest subject with one the school knows they can master in eight months. They are taught by dedicated parttime teachers. Study skills and mentoring are also provided. In 2016, all 161 GMS pupils passed matric. An astonishing 120 (75%) gained bachelor passes and 37(23%) diploma passes. For three years, the GMS has been the largest feeder school to Rhodes University. A second example from Grahamstown is Ntsika High School. A few years ago, Ntsika was Grahamstown's worstperforming school. Years of courageous and determined leadership has driven a turnaround. More recently, pupils have also been assisted by student volunteers in a dedicated programme championed by the Rhodes University vicechancellor. In 2016, 61 pupils (87%) from Ntsika passed matric, 22 with bachelor passes. For the first time, a "township" school in Grahamstown powered through to third position in the rankings of local public schools. The teachers, pupils and volunteers of initiatives such as these are the heroes of SA. They are bringing about changes in pupils' life Secondchance schools gateway to skills GAVIN KEETON opportunities that will have an effect for generations. Importantly, experiences such as these can be repeated throughout SA. The government is now.committed to "secondchance" schools.. The GMS experience suggests that, rather than being content with another year of the same, dedicated nongovernmental organisations delivering well thoughtthrough and managed programmes should be the focus of the government and private support. Schools such as Ntsika succeeding against the odds should also be strongly supported. The government needs also to take the lessons of such successes back into all schools. Only then will SA address the lack of skills constraining growth.
Keeton is with the economics department at Rhodes University.Source: Business Day
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