International Day of Education, celebrated annually on 24 January, draws attention to the importance of access to quality education as a basis for a functioning, vibrant society and for the realisation of any future development objectives. This year’s theme “invest in people, prioritise education”aptly asks us to shift our attention from the symptomatic energy crisis and challenging economic reality we currently face, and to focus rather on one of the underlying causes – an unequal and dysfunctional education system.

Section 29 of the Constitution guarantees every person’s right to “a basic education”, which the State is obligated to “make progressively available and accessible”. However, the goal of providingan education of progressively high quality for all learnersas emphasised in the South African Schools Act 1996 (SASA) – has yet to materialise.

In the FW de Klerk Foundation Human Rights Report Card 2021/2, the failure of government to provide access to quality education was highlighted as a principal threat to human rights in South Africa. According to a 2020 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey on the quality of education, South Africa was ranked 75 out of the 76 countries assessed faring very badly with regard to basic reading and maths skillscompared even with the performance of some of the poorest African countries.

Yet, South Africa continues to budget significantly for basic education, with R272.3 billion (4,4% of GDP) allocated during 2021/2, which represents an expenditure of R19 450 for each of the 14 million children in the public school system. The budget for post-school education and training was an additional R119.6 billion (1.95% of GDP) – meaning that total provision for public education represented 19.4% of the budgetby far the largest component. This brought the total expenditure on public education to 6.35% of GDP, considerably higher than the world average of 3.66% (2019).

However, in the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) which assessed the mathematics and science knowledge of fourth and eighth graders around the world, South Africa consistently scored in the bottom three of countries assessed.

Although South Africa chose to administer TIMSS to Grade 5 and Grade 9 learners making the majority one year older than many of their global participants – 63% of Grade 5 learners could not achieve the TIMSS basic threshold for maths, and 72% of learners similarly could not show that they had attained basic science knowledge. For Grade 9, only 41% of learners achieved basic math knowledge and 36% of learners were able to reach the basic science knowledge threshold.

These figures demonstrate that high investment in education is not necessarily an indicator of the quality of education. However, inclusive and equitable quality education leads the way out of intergenerational poverty, teaches critical thinking and forces our diverse communities together – it, therefore, needs to be carefully protected and robustly promoted.

The recently released 2022 matric exam results from the Department of Basic Education show a pass rate of 80.1% – a welcome improvement of 3.7% when compared to 2021. Nevertheless, only 63.9% of the total “matric class of 2022” who would have started Grade 1 in 2011 enrolled for matric in 2022. A 2021 report by StatsSA revealed that “almost three out of 10 pupils aged 18 years (29,3%) and 4 out of 9 (46.3%) 19-year-olds had dropped out of school.” The result, is a mere 6% of South Africans acquiring a tertiary education degree, according to the Department of Higher Education’s biennial report.

Priority needs to urgently be placed on equipping the 80% of dysfunctional public schools with the resources they desperately need and to alleviate the reasons many students drop out of school. Aside from poverty and unemployment, which undoubtedly hinder numerous children from attending school, according to Basic Education Director-General Mathanzima Mweli, “the language of learning” also greatly impacts their ability to continue with school.

The Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill 2022 (BELA Bill), currently before the National Assembly, poses a serious threat to language and cultural rights in South Africa as single-medium public schools would soon be forced to provide dual-medium education and school governing bodies stripped of their power to determine the language and admission policies of their schools. This would not only undermine section 29(2) of the Constitution, which provides all South Africans the right to receive education in the official language of their choice (where this is reasonably practicable), but could as Mweli suggests potentially lead to further drop-outs.

On this International Day of Education, let us refocus on the goal of investing in the country’s youth and future. It is only by investing in our people through education that we will be able to nurture the minds and create the capacity needed to solve the many challenges with which South Africa grapples.

In the words of former President FW de Klerk, “The Constitution proclaims that everyone has a right to education and declares that the child’s best interests are of paramount importance. This means that none of us should rest until we have dramatically improved education outcomes and the conditions in which many of our children still live.