Mr. Sizwe Nxasana: Chairman of the NECT Board
Mr. Godwin Khosa: CEO
Local and International Social Partners
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a very special moment for me to join all of you for the launch of the National Reading Coalition (NRC) under the aegis of the National Education Collaboration Trust.
I am delighted and deeply honoured to share in the founding of the National Reading Coalition (NRC) with such distinguished leaders in education, business and society. This new birth comes only days after the world commemorated the release from custody of our founding father, the late Mr. Nelson Mandela. The release of Mandela and others remains etched in our collective consciousness as a nation. It marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid nightmare. For millions of our people and our friends across the globe, it marked the beginning of a new era.
Programme Director; we meet here on the cusp of the nation-wide celebrations in our country and abroad as our democracy turns a whopping twenty five years old. We continue to build this new society out of the ashes of apartheid. We are proud to say that our new society bears no resemblance to our ugly past. It is founded on a Constitution which enjoins us to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. Thus our Constitution lays the basis for the construction of a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, united and prosperous society. We must as society do everything in our power to protect and advance the lofty ideals of our Constitution. We must constantly remind those who exercise public power that they do so on behalf of the people not for self-gain and self-aggrandizement.
We also host this event in the immediate aftermath of the centenary of the birth of our struggle heroine and hero, Albertina Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. Together with the finest generation of freedom fighters they fought resolutely and relentlessly for our equality and freedom. This democracy that we enjoy today is the product of their struggle.
The offshoot of this democracy means that as South Africans we are joined at the hip. We must collectively work together to find solutions to our common problems. One of the greatest challenges facing South Africa’s basic education today is an inability of our learners to read for meaning. As we know literacy skills represent a meta-tool that enables people to access multiple other tools, acquire fundamental rights and amass a wide range of competencies, information and knowledge.
Programme Director; it is true that our obtaining situation on reading for comprehension is precarious. But, we do not have a non-reading epidemic just yet but a national emergency nonetheless. We must as a matter of urgency address the prevalence of poor comprehension of reading texts amongst a particular section of society. I do not intend to present to you a truncated analysis and statistics on the reading challenges we face save to say it has been studied to death.
I am aware of various initiatives to address this reading for comprehension conundrum. Fore-instance four years ago we launched a reading initiative dubbed ‘Read to Lead’. We registered some notable successes, stumbled a bit, but most importantly, we learned how not to do it. In a way, this National Reading Coalition is an offshoot of the ‘Read to Lead’ campaign.
In our recent (2019) Basic Education Lekgotla, we resolved amongst others to continue to strengthen the foundations of learning, particularly in the early grades. We correctly said that Reading and Mathematics are to become our apex priorities.
In this regard, there’s a need for concomitant action to leverage on existing reading initiatives so that we have a national response. Therefore, the National Reading Coalition (NRC) is not new outfit that replaces all micro reading initiatives across the country. Instead, it’s about providing leadership, coordination and evidence based approaches to the pedagogues of reading. The NRC shall mobilise and provide support for and coordination of reading initiatives across class, gender and geographies. By its very nature as a coalition it must lobby and assist Government to develop a national reading plan that aligns and coordinates various initiatives that support the ‘Read to Lead’ campaign.
In a sense, the NRC must have a life of its own, not depended on political leadership or political mechanisation. Hence, it must establish and maintain a self-sustaining, agile ecosystem of reading initiatives across the country.
Therefore, it is expected that the NRC will have a wider reach than all previous initiatives combined. It must reach every nook and cranny in our country – from community organisations, individuals, government, social partners, and civil society all bound by a common goal to improve reading in our society.
I am happy to announce that the President of the Republic His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa has endorsed this initiative and volunteered to be its chief patron. In a message to this august gathering he said: “Thank you for bringing to life the National Reading Coalition, a much-needed collaboration platform to network existing reading initiatives and mobilise additional capacity to get our nation reading.”
Programme Director; we must remain focussed on early grade reading. This is so because that’s where you can successfully nip the problem in the bud. Our long term basic education strategy, the “Action Plan to 2019: Towards the realisation of Schooling 2030,” especially Goal 1 talks about the imperative of early grade learning.
It calls for an increase in the number of learners in Grade 3 who, by the end of the year, have mastered the minimum language and numeracy competencies for Grade three. It’s therefore true to say the National Reading Coalition doesn’t raise policy uncertainty, but it’s a turbocharge implementation plan.
Programme Director; I know that in our recent past there’s been deliberate falsehood that our basic education system is like the skunk of the world. While I accept that the issue of basic education is an emotive issue, yet we cannot allow the public discourse to be polluted by half-truths, myths and damn lies. Our basic education is not by a long shot the worst in the world.
Programme Director; in our country and rest of the continent of Africa, the literacy challenge is inseparable from problems such as poverty, the HIV pandemic, and conflicts. Access to literacy and education is a basic human right across all geographies. Yet access to schooling and literacy is at best intermitted.
Out of 44 sub-Saharan African countries, only 7 have an estimated adult literacy rate above 80 per cent. 18 countries have a literacy rate under 50 percent or an illiterate population of more than 10 million. This lack of literacy skills stems from the fact that scant attention is paid to creating a literate environment.
There are no special initiatives to provide basic education for adults who have never been to school, out-of-school youth, and young people and adults who have received primary schooling but lost a high proportion if not all of their literacy skills. Literacy efforts are allocated only minimum resources and are rarely integrated into sector-wide education policies and intersectoral development agendas. We intend to change this narrative. We are on course to do so.
Africa’s current primary school enrolment rate is above 80 percent on average, with the continent recording some of the biggest increases in elementary school enrolment globally in the last few decades, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). More children in Africa are going to school than ever before.
Yet despite the successes in primary school enrolment, inequalities and inefficiencies remain in this critical sector.
According to the African Union (AU), the recent expansion in enrolments “masks huge disparities and system dysfunctionalities and inefficiencies” in education sub-sectors such as pre-primary, technical, vocational and informal education, which are severely underdeveloped.
It is widely accepted that most of Africa’s education and training programs suffer from low-quality teaching and learning, as well as inequalities and exclusion at all levels. Even with a substantial increase in the number of children with access to basic education, a large number still remain out of school.
A newly released report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Income Inequality Trends in sub-Saharan Africa: Divergence, Determinants and Consequences, identifies the unequal distribution of essential facilities, such as schools, as one the drivers of wide income disparities.
Ayodele Odusola, the lead editor of the report and UNDP’s chief economist, makes the following point: “Quality education is key to social mobility and can thus help reduce poverty, although it may not necessarily reduce [income] inequality.” To address education inequality, he says, governments must invest heavily in child and youth development through appropriate education and health policies and programmes. Higher-quality education, he says, improves the distribution of skilled workers, and state authorities can use this increased supply to build a fairer society in which all people, rich or poor, have equal opportunities. As it is now, only the elite who benefit from quality education.
Another challenge facing policymakers and pedagogues is low secondary and tertiary enrolment. Angela Lusigi, one of the authors of the UNDP report, says that while Africa has made significant advances in closing the gap in primary-level enrolments, both secondary and tertiary enrolments lag behind.
Only four out of every 100 children in Africa is expected to enter a graduate and postgraduate institution, compared to 36 out of 100 in Latin America and 14 out of 100 in South and West Asia.
“In fact, only 30 to 50 percent of secondary-school-aged children are attending school, while only 7 to 23 percent of tertiary-school-aged youth are enrolled. This varies by sub-region, with the lowest levels being in Central and Eastern Africa and the highest enrolment levels in Southern and North Africa,” Lusigi, who is also the strategic advisor for UNDP Africa, told Africa Renewal. According to Lusigi, many factors account for the low transition from primary to secondary and tertiary education.
The first is limited household incomes, which limit children’s access to education. A lack of government investment to create equal access to education also plays a part. “The big push that led to much higher primary enrolment in Africa was subsidized schooling financed by both public resources and development assistance,” she said. “This has not yet transitioned to providing free access to secondary- and tertiary-level education.”
Another barrier to advancing from primary to secondary education is the inability of national institutions in Africa to ensure equity across geographical and gender boundaries. Disabled children are particularly disadvantaged. “Often in Africa, decisions to educate children are made within the context of discriminatory social institutions and cultural norms that may prevent young girls or boys from attending school,” says Lusigi.
Regarding gender equality in education, large gaps exist in access, learning achievement and advanced studies, most often at the expense of girls, although in some regions boys may be the ones at a disadvantage.
UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics reports that more girls than boys remain out of school in sub-Saharan Africa, where a girl can expect to receive only about nine years of schooling while boys can expect 10 years (including some time spent repeating classes).
More girls than boys drop out of school before completing secondary or tertiary education in Africa. Globally, women account for two-thirds of the 750 million adults without basic literacy skills.
Then there is the additional challenge of Africa’s poorly resourced education systems, the difficulties ranging from the lack of basic school infrastructure to poor-quality instruction. According to the Learning Barometer of the Brookings Institution, a US-based think tank, up to 50 percent of the students in some countries are not learning effectively.
Results from regional assessments by the UN indicate “poor learning outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa, despite the upward trend in average learning achievements.” Many children who are currently in school will not learn enough to acquire the basic skills needed to lead successful and productive lives. Some will leave school without a basic grasp of reading and mathematics.
On this Southern tip of Africa, today we are taking a bold step to change the narrative. Programme Director, this is the beginning of the #Reading Revolution.
I thank you