23 August 2023 Reading Time: The Literacy Challenge in South Africa 

In February 2023, the South African National Senior matric results were released, showing a pass rate of 80%. A point of concern derived from the report was that only about 750 000 of the 1.2 million pupils who enrolled for Grade 1 in 2011 wrote their final matric exams in 2022. This means that about 420 000 learners who started Grade 1 in 2011 did not write matric exams in 2022. What caused all those children to terminate their education? At gold-youth, we see this as a critical question that requires an answer and a solution.

According to The Outliera small team of South African data journalists and programmers—each year more than 1 million new pupils start their formal schooling in Grade 1 but less than half reach Grade 12. While the decline in numbers is mostly consistent from one grade to the next, there is an exception: Grade 10. Many pupils seem to reach and then remain there for a while. Some repeat the grade a few times, some switch to colleges that prepare them for specific trades but many drop out entirely. 

Of the students who do manage to write their matric exams, many do not pass. This is especially the case in no-fee schools. According to The Outlier, 51% of students in no-fee schools failed matric math, whereas in fee-paying schools only 32% failed. This highlights the disparity between better funded and under-resourced schools.

Further, recent findings from the International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reveal that 81% of Grade 4 pupils in South Africa cannot read for meaning. Therefore, about eight out of 10 learners require help understanding clearly stated information in a text. From the research and current statistics, it will seem that South Africa is experiencing a reading crisis.

We cannot speak of the education challenges in South Africa without placing them in their apartheid context. The ongoing social and economic effects of generations of racist policy and the resulting inequality have made the task of fixing the education system more than challenging. There remains a significant gap between the quality of education received by white and non-white South Africans. 

There are many factors that continue to harm school retention. At gold-youth we have witnessed several additional factors adversely affecting education goals, such as a lack of role models, apathy, low self-esteem, bullying at school and challenges at home and with family

The reality is that without a matric certificate young people are less eligible for employment, which highlights the importance of ensuring that those who enter the school program complete it. According to Zero Dropout:

“A matric certificate remains an essential passport to tertiary education, which more than doubles a person’s chances of finding a job as well as their earnings and job security. In 2021, close to 60% of all people (aged 15–60) not in education, training or employment, did not have a matric.”

Young women are the most affected, as early pregnancy often means dropping out of school to raise the child while the boy continues his schooling. Another factor is child-headed homes, which makes completing school very challenging. 

Compounding these problems is that 90% of those who do complete matric do so without sufficient marks for university entrance. This further reduces opportunities for meaningful employment. 

Mathematics is a major challenge, too. In 2022, 45% of matriculants failed the subject. 

See this chart from The Outlier:

Among those who did pass, many achieved only the pass mark of 30%. If anyone wants to have a career in science or engineering, they need above 70%. In 2022, only 13% of learners got 60% or higher. 

The foregoing picture is bleak. It highlights the critical importance of education when it comes to securing a future for our youth. 

gold-youth is committed to finding solutions for the education-and-unemployment crisis among Africa’s vulnerable youth. One of gold-youth’s goals is to improve education outcomes. We believe that quality education is fundamental to economic transformation, which plays a key role in supporting young people to make informed choices for their future, both socially and economically.

Further, we know that quality education is not possible without addressing the social challenges facing young people in communities where unemployment and youth risk behaviour is high.

While the matric pass rate in South Africa stood at 80%, the pass rate among gold-youth’s Lead Peer Educators was 99%. 

We work with youth from underserved communities who show potential for leadership. They are not academic achievers when recruited into the gold Programme in Grade 9. They are simply youth who are budding change agents, often the disruptive kids displaying bad bahviour in a community who have an influence on their peers. When they start to see their value, they become positive role models. At gold-youth, we say ‘the message giver is the strongest message’. Authentic change is contagious and has the power to motivate and transform young people. 

Our impact assessment shows that between 2018 to 2022, youth in the gold Programme have achieved a 31% increase in school performance and commitment to education; their risk behaviour has reduced by 43% and they are 50% more employable.

South Africa’s efforts to transform the education system should take close stock of the complex social issues that erode self-esteem in our youth. At gold-youth, we choose to see them as powerful nation-builders and ethical leaders. We believe that young people who know that they are valuable and that they have agency for personal transformation have the prerequisite motivation to set goals and achieve academic goals.