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ABET is a second chance

For many South Africans, ABET or AET is a second chance to gain a quality education so that they too can improve their circumstances.

Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training are geared at communities where education systems of a low quality are entrenching exclusion and marginalisation.

It is a fact that, in South Africa, you are 10 times more likely to be poor if you do not have an education than if you do. Poverty levels for people with higher education are only about 8,5%.

From an early age, there are already stark distinctions between the future prospects of South African children. This is simply due to the vastly different qualities of schooling that children from poorer communities and those from affluent ones receive.

Therefore, the South African education system is failing to achieve its objectives. These include fostering nation-building and promoting democratic values. Importantly, education is also intended to provide a pathway out of poverty for the poor. This is considering that education is the only way that poor South Africans can enter the top end of the labour market. Moreover, education plays a large role in the unravelling of the stubborn social structure of the past regime. This is in addition to creating a more cohesive and less polarised society.

Yet, the South African government’s investment into education has remained relatively high. The country spends about the equivalent to more than 6% of its gross-domestic product on education. This is similar to many other OECD [] countries. However, many other sub-Saharan African countries spend significantly less per learner than we do and have better educational outcomes. It is clear that while government has increased access to education, quality of tuition especially in the poor areas has lagged behind.

Quality ABET

The private sector is making quality ABET or AET available to poor communities. These adult literacy and numeracy training programmes are being undertaken as part of companies’ corporate-social investment initiatives. The mining industry in particular is a significant driver of these programmes. ABET or AET is a type of skills development undertaken as part of the human resources development component of social-labour plans. Mining companies are awarded mining rights based on the strength of these. Notably, these initiatives are extending the reach of ABET or AET. This includes into the rural areas where illiteracy is very high due to the poor education provided.

There are many reasons for the underperformance of schools in poor areas of the country. Among others, they lack discipline, management and highly qualified and experienced teachers. Teachers from these schools tend to have lower subject content knowledge and there are few systems in place to hold them accountable. This challenge is exacerbated by the political influence that teacher unions have in the education system in these areas. These factors are reinforced by many social mechanisms. They include the influence of parents and children’s peers, as well as a broader neighbourhood effect.

In poor areas, children are less mobile than their counterparts in the metropolitan nodes. They, therefore, attend schools close to their homes, although this may still involve commuting over long distances. There is a strong overlap between a school’s socio-economic profile and that of the community.

Worryingly, 80% of South Africa’s dysfunctional schools are located in townships and rural communities. Therefore, the poorest between 75% and 80% of learners depend on a dysfunctional public schooling system and achieve poor academic outcomes. Meanwhile, the wealthiest 20% to 25% of learners are enrolled in private and functional public schools and achieve better educational results.

ABET geared at employed

ABET or AET is also geared at employed unskilled and low-skilled workers, many of whom attended schools in the townships and rural areas. Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training equip them with the skills that they need to rise up the ranks. This is opposed to being stuck in the “low-skills trap”. Earning wages that barely cover the rising cost of living, these individuals are also referred to as the working poor.

Income distribution remains highly skewed in South Africa, and this is fuelling growing inequality. The top 20% of the population holds more than 68% of income. This is compared to the median of 47% for similar emerging markets. Meanwhile, the bottom 40% of the population only holds 7% of income. This is versus 16% for other emerging markets. Similar trends can be observed across other measures, such as the income share of the top 1%.

Shortages of skilled workers and an unskilled labour glut is a contributor.

For example, highly educated South Africans mainly benefited from the skill-intensive economic growth in the early 2000s. During this period, there were more employment opportunities for people with a tertiary education. At the same time, more people completed primary education. However, the number of South Africans who enrolled for tertiary education during this period remained more or less the same. This again points to the quality of schooling in many areas of the country. Individuals may have completed matric, but they failed to gain university exemption, merely scraping through. Bear in mind our low matric pass mark.

Learners must only pass at least three subjects with 40% and the remainder with 30%. Experts argue that thresholds should be raised to 50% to improve our education system. However, government has pushed back the proposal. It wants to encourage “different levels of achievement.”

ABET geared at poor

ABET or AET is geared at the poor who have struggled to complete school due to their circumstances. Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training is the only way that they will be able to acquire foundational skills.

Barring the quality of education in poor areas, absolute poverty often reduces the ability to learn.

Circumstances at home may limit learning. For example, there may be no books, lighting or spaces to do homework. Learners may have many chores to complete when they get home, leaving very little time for homework. For example, some learners from poor backgrounds may have to help take care of siblings while parents are at work. Some may even be expected to hold parttime jobs so that they can help to support their families.

Families may not be able to afford transportation for their children to school and back. They, therefore, have to walk long distances to school and back.

Poor nutrition also affects the ability of children to learn. Studies have shown that stunted children are less likely to enrol in schools. If they do enrol for education, they are more likely to drop out. Notably, the nutritional status of children and young adults in South Africa is poor. Some 27% of the country’s children are stunted. Meanwhile, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity remain a challenge and sometimes even coexist in the same household.

Financially insecure or unstable environments can often lead to anxiety and emotional stress which make it difficult to concentrate on schoolwork. This can be exacerbated by violence and abuse in some poor homes.

Oftentimes, children born into poor families pass the poverty that they inherited from their generation to the next.

ABET is a starting point

ABET or AET is a starting point in a lifelong learning journey. After completing adult literacy training and adult numeracy training, individuals can complete matric. From there, they are able to access a tertiary education.

Education provides a means of escaping poverty. Of the 7,2-million unemployed South Africans in the first quarter of 2021, more than half had education levels below matric. 37,7% had completed matric. Only 2,1% of unemployed South Africans were graduates. 7,5% had other tertiary qualifications as their highest level of education.

Notably, it is Black South Africans who are most effected by lack of proper education and unemployment. This is playing a major role in creating sustained inequities. 45% of White South Africans have received a tertiary education and are, therefore, able to access better jobs with their skills. This is compared to the 12% of Black South Africans who hold diplomas or degrees.

ABET imparts foundational skills

ABET or AET imparts foundational skills. Individuals who have completed adult literacy training and adult numeracy training have skills at a National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Level 1. The next logical step is to complete adult matric at a NQF Level 4.

Learners from poor communities already start struggling at primary school level.

Consider our performance in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS]. 64 countries and regional entities participated in the Grade 4 TIMSS. South Africa scored an average of 374 for mathematics and 324 for science. This is well below the 400 points “basic” threshold.

South African primary school learners also underperformed in the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS). 81% of South African Grade 4s could not read for meaning in the 2021 study. South Africa with its 288 score points performed significantly below the PIRLS centre point of 500. Learners who do not reach the lowest benchmark of 400 cannot retrieve basic information from text to answer simple questions. Refer to

Tertiary education is not addressing these shortfalls.

Grade 9 learners only scored 389 for mathematics and 370 for science in the TIMSS. According to the Department of basic Education [], only 41% of learners demonstrated that they had acquired basic mathematics knowledge. Meanwhile, just 36% of learners had acquired foundational science knowledge.

The learning deficits in our secondary education also impedes many South Africans from reaching a secondary qualification. In 2015, only 14% of learner cohorts who started primary education enrolled for a tertiary education after 12 years. More than a quarter of students enrolled for tertiary education dropped out in their first year of study.

Private sector community ABET programmes


Private sector community ABET or AET programmes improve access to quality adult literacy training and adult numeracy training.

Despite the intense need, government has not invested heavily into ABET or AET in the townships and rural areas. This is in terms of adult education qualifications; programmes; and teaching approaches and methods. There has also been a lacklustre approach to the development and distribution of materials for educators and learners. Note the excessive time it took to receive approvals for related qualifications and curriculum. These include the General Education and Training Certificate for Adults and the National Senior Certificate for Adults.

Refer to Adult Basic Education and Training Act: General Education and Training Certificate (GETC) – Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) Level 4, qualification at Level 1 on National Qualifications Framework: Amendment | South African Government ( Also reference NATIONAL SENIOR CERTIFICATE FOR ADULTS – WEB.pdf ( for further reading. The quality of training facilitators also remains a concern in state-run ABET or AET programmes.

To date, most of the emphasis has been on improving access to basic education. Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training has been placed on the backburner.

Notably, there are about 4-million South African adults who need ABET or AET. In 2019, the illiteracy rate remained the highest among Black South Africans compared to other race groupings. However, the illiteracy rate among Black South Africans had declined significantly between 2009 and 2019.

These functionally illiterate adults are either unemployed or trapped in unskilled or low-skilled jobs that also provide very little security. This is considering the South African economy’s increasing reliance on skilled workers. Upskilling these individuals starts with ABET or AET, which equips people with the knowledge that they need to continue learning.

The importance of ABET

The importance of ABET or AET cannot be overstated. In fact, access to quality adult literacy training and adult numeracy training is enshrined in our constitution. This is considering the role that they can play in improving the quality of life of South African citizens.

The probability of finding employment rises with higher levels of education. People with higher education also earn more. A better educated household is less likely to be poor.

The impact of education on earnings works largely through the labour market.

In the labour market, higher wages for more educated people may be as a result of improved productivity. Education may also act as a signal of ability to employers enabling better educated people to obtain lucrative jobs.

Middle-income countries such as South Africa are likely to benefit from education as a result of better jobs and higher wages. These countries frequently have well developed markets for more educated labour.

It was previously believed that the return-on-investment into education were highest at primary levels.

However, newer studies show that investment in education at secondary or even tertiary levels may result in even higher returns in some countries. This could indicate that returns to education vary with factors. These include the level of development; the supply of educated workers; and shifts in the demand for skilled workers in the development process. For example, the need for more educated labour increases as a country develops. Educational output must adjust to the increase in demand for highly skilled employees. This raises the relative returns to higher levels of education.

ABET helps to grow economy

ABET or AET helps to grow the economy. This is considering that adult literacy training and adult numeracy training impart workplace literacy skills. A robust economy, in turn, creates more jobs and training, as well as skills development opportunities.

A country’s economy becomes more productive as the proportion of educated workers increases. This is considering that educated workers can undertake tasks more efficiently that require literacy and critical thinking skills.

Countries realise faster economic growth when a larger portion of their population attends and graduates from schools. This is compared to countries with less-educated workers. Notably, South Africa continues to grapple with low productivity growth. This is especially in terms of the overall performance of small, medium and micro enterprises and the productive industry sectors. In turn, this hampers economic growth and international competitiveness.

For businesses, an employee’s intellectual ability can be treated as an asset. This asset is used to create products and services which are sold. Firms with many well-trained employees can theoretically produce more and better goods or services. ABET or AET can thus be viewed as a type of human capital.

An ABET specialist

Triple E Training is an ABET or AET specialist.

We have a more than 30 year-long track record providing quality adult literacy training and adult numeracy training to members of poor communities and low skilled employees. This is undertaken on behalf of leading participants in a variety of industries.

Together with our clients, we are making an impact on high illiteracy in the country and lifting people out of poverty.

It was Julias Nyerere who once said, “Education is not a way to escape poverty. It is a way of fighting it.” We agree!

Learn more about Triple E Training and our ABET or AET programmes.

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Book a Call

Unlock the Full Potential of Your Employees. Leave your details & our team get back to you.

Note: Please be assured that all personal data submitted is handled with the utmost confidentiality & will only be used for the purpose of addressing your inquiries.