Worsening state of literacy and maths skills in SA – New report highlights.


The latest survey that measures the performance of our education system shows that there has been very little to no improvement in the quality of our basic education system over the years. In some instances, we have regressed due to the interruption that Covid-19 has had on the school system. Many South Africans will, therefore, join the workforce ill-equipped to cope with the demands of an economy that has grown increasingly reliant upon sophisticated skills. This is because they cannot even read for meaning or do basic maths. They are essentially functionally illiterate and innumerate.

Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training will, therefore, become even more important over the years to come as an effective means of equipping South Africans with the functional literacy and basic numbers skills that they need to perform their jobs according to standard. This complements the stellar role adult basic education and training or “ABET” is playing in upskilling those unskilled employees who have not had the opportunity to complete their basic education so that they can also gain critical English literacy and basic maths proficiencies. These foundational English literacy and basic numbers skills are enabling low skilled employees to grow and develop in the workplace.

The extent of South Africa’s illiteracy challenge has again come under scrutiny. This follows the release of the inaugural 2030 Reading Panel report, which has showed that there has been scant improvement in the country’s basic education system over the years. In some instances, we have even regressed as a nation in terms of the ability of our education system to appropriately equip young citizens of the country with foundational English literacy and basic numbers skills.


Out-of-school children   
Total567 591845 478803 453
Female198 498386 532379 344
Male369 093458 946463 709
Out-of-school adolescents   
Total369 399281 608207 714
Female210 682128 26199 071
Male158 717153 347108 643
[Source:] Unesco


Pre-primary education201120122013201420152016201720182019
Gross enrolment ratio: %         
Total18,718,818,318,818,7  17,617,8
Female18,818,918,51918,7  17,717,9
Male18,518,718,218,718,7  17,617,8
Net enrolment rate: %         
Total    12,7  17,317,5
Female    6,1  17,417,6
Male    18,3  17,217,4
[Source:] Unesco


Primary education201120122013201420152016201720182019
Gross enrolment rate: %         
Net enrolment rate: %         
Total    84,4 8786,686,7
Female      86,786,987
Male      87,386,486,3
[Source:] Unesco


Primary education201120122013201420152016201720182019
Gross enrolment rate: %         
Total96,1898,83 107,8109,44107,18104,7100,51102,56
Female98,88101,68 112,82108,75112,09109,03103,97105,67
Male93,5296,02 102,86110,13102,34100,4297,199,49
Net enrolment rate: %         
Total    90,5 71,968,470,3
Female    89,9 78,572,573,8
Male    91,2 65,464,466,8
[Source:] Unesco


Tertiary education201120122013201420152016201720182019
Gross enrolment rate: %         
Female 22,423,423,2 24,526,428,328,6
Male 15,916,516,5 17,418,419,419,2
[Source:] Unesco


Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training grows in importance

The 2030 Reading Panel is a civil society initiative that is being led by former Deputy President, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. It aims to ensure that all children will be able to read for meaning by the age of 10. It has been well documented that many young adults who join the workforce are not functionally literate, despite being in possession of National Senior Certificate. This is due to a failing basic education system that is unable to adequately prepare young South Africans for the world of work.

Many young adults who leave school only have very basic literacy and numeracy skills. They are not functionally literate. Functionally literate people are able to engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for the effective operation in their group and community. They are also able to continue using their literacy and numeracy skills for their own and community’s development. Employees who are functionally illiterate are also unable to perform at optimal levels in the workplace. They make mistakes because of misunderstandings and they are less productive as they struggle to understand clear instructions from their supervisors and managers.

This leads to waste, as well as missed production targets and deadlines and, ultimately, unsatisfied customers and clients. There have also been documented incidences where employees who do not have literacy and numeracy skills have caused major safety- and environmental-related accidents in the workplace, resulting in fatalities and injuries, as well as damage to surroundings. This has resulted in significant legal and reputational costs simply because low skilled employees were unable to read occupational health and safety protocol, usually written in English, for meaning. It is for this reason that many employees who are in possession of a National Senior Certificate also complete adult literacy training and adult numeracy training programmes at work.

Adult basic education and training or “ABET” has shown to appropriately bridge the growing divide between a matric and the functional literacy and numeracy skills required in the world of work. It has also become good practice to enrol older employees for adult basic education and training or “ABET” to update their English literacy and basic numbers skills. This is considering the extensive time that has lapsed since they completed their basic education. Bear in mind that languages, such as English, and basic numbers skills need to be practiced regularly or these skills decline over time. Certainly, adult literacy training and adult numeracy training is also an effective way of enabling low skilled employees who have not had the opportunity to complete their basic education to acquire the foundational skills that they need to succeed in the workplace.


Government expenditure on education5,96,15,9665,96,16,26,56,8
As a percentage of GDP18,719,718,71918,71818,718,919,619,5
As a percentage of total government expenditure          
Government expenditure per student2 063,62 3142 262,12 219,92 154,62 192,72 222,52 279,12 408,42 829,9
Primary education2 063,62 3142 262,12 219,92 154,62 192,72 222,52 279,12 408,43 445,4
Initial government funding per secondary student PPS2 512,62 565,82 323 2 389,52 390,42 463,82 715,42 966,43 446,4
Initial government funding per tertiary student PPS  4 726,64 755,85 011,14 4745 897,36 094,77 1968 319
[Source:] Unesco


Illiterate population    
15 to 24 years156 60099 51457 0862019
15 years and older2 068 624903 5061 165 1182019
[Credit:] Unesco


Literacy rate %   2019
15 to 24 years98,49898,82019
15 years and older9595,594,52019
65 years and older76,480,773,72019
[Credit:] Unesco


Covid-19 brings literacy and numeracy training to a standstill


One of the major concerns brought to the fore in the report is the dire impact that the protracted closure of schools in 2020 and the rotational timetables that were implemented afterwards to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus have had on education in the country. This will only exacerbate the already high illiteracy levels in South Africa. It is estimated that young learners lost 1,3 years of learning during this period. This included the opportunity to gain foundational English literacy and basic maths skills.

According to assessments, Grade 4 learners know less than those who were in Grade 2 in 2018. It was only in January 2022 that the authorities were considering doing away with the rotational system and allow all learners back to school. It must also be noted that many school students also dropped out of school during this period. By the end of 2021, about 500 000 young South Africans left school prematurely when the schools were shut and during the rotational system.

Many of these young South Africans will, inevitably, join South Africa’s large pool of unskilled labour that does not have basic English literacy and maths skills. Without interventions, such as adult basic education and training or “ABET”, they will struggle to improve their abilities in the workplace at the expense of productivity, efficiency and accuracy. It is evident that the demand for adult literacy training and adult numeracy training will continue to grow in the years to come as companies continue to adapt to the shortcomings of the country’s school system.


School life expectancy ISCED 1 to 8 years13,6413,3113,982019
Percentage of repeaters in primary7,69,95,12019
Survival in the last grade of primary96,693,9793,342018
Gross intake ratio into the last grade of primary: %9290,893,22019
Effective transition rate from primary to lower secondary general education97,297,197,32018
[Source:] Unesco


Government literacy drive falls short of meeting literacy targets

According to the 2030 Reading Panel, before the pandemic, there was a gradual improvement in the quality of basic education. It says that the reading and basic maths skills of young South Africans who were enrolled in Grade 1 from 1994 onwards had improved, although off a very low base. However, the little progress that was made in equipping young learners with English literacy and numeracy skills has largely been undone by the pandemic and it will now take as many as 80 years before all 10-year-old South Africans can read for meaning. Government recently stated its intentions of ensuring that citizens of this age are able to read to understand by 2030.

However, it is now anticipated that only 36% of South Africans of this age will have the necessary English literacy skills by this time. At present, only 22% of 10-year-old South Africans can read for meaning in any of the official languages. This incudes in English, which is the formal language of business and learning. Bear in mind that this also fuels the high dropout rate in the country as children who struggle in these very early years of their learning will continue to do so throughout their education. Those who do struggle throughout their learning journey and complete their schooling will, in all likelihood, have failed to acquire the functional literacy skills they need to meaningfully participate in a rapidly changing economy. Just because they have literacy and numeracy skills does not mean that they can deploy them in everyday life, including in the world of work.


Experienced English literacy and maths teachers close to retirement

The report has also highlighted an anticipated severe shortage of skilled and experienced teachers, including those who specialise in English literacy and basic maths, in the country. This is considering that many of the country’s seasoned educators, including English literacy and basic maths teachers, are close to retirement age. To address the looming shortage, universities will have to train 44 000 teachers by 2025 and 50 000 by 2030. To provide context, universities had to train 26 000 teachers in 2018 to ensure the effective functioning of our public school system.

Meanwhile, the report bemoans the quality of educators leaving the country’s universities.According to the report; assessments showed that first year B.Ed students from three universities only achieved 52% on a primary school maths test. Final year students scored 54% for the same exam.

The report has also questioned the efficacy of reading programmes that have been launched by government to improve literacy skills in the country. This is considering that they are vastly under-funded as they do not receive the priority that they deserve from the authorities, despite functional illiteracy having been identified as a national crisis by government. It is clear that the private sector, through adult literacy training and adult numeracy training, will continue to shoulder most of the responsibility of upgrading the skills of adults who have passed through the school system. This is to ensure that the country has the foundational English literacy and basic maths skills needed to grow the economy and compete globally.

The report has also raised concern about the quality of maths in the country. Maths is included in the study because South African primary school teachers are expected to be able to teach English literacy and basic numbers skills to young learners. This is part of the foundational phase of their learning journey.


Adult education and training or “AET” covers the following learning areas:

  • Language, literacy and communication: Learners who have completed accredited training provider, Triple E Training’s, adult education and training or “AET” programmes will be able to use a range of communication, language and learning strategies in a variety of contexts. Notably, they will be proficient in English, which is used widely in business to communicate. English is also used in workplace training programmes that are geared at upgrading, as well as refining and honing skills of employees so that companies can gain and retain a competitive edge in the market.
  • Maths and mathematical sciences: Learners who have completed the accredited training provider’s adult education and training or “AET” programmes are able to explain and use strategies, techniques and patterns that involve the use of maths. Importantly, they are also able to use their basic numbers skills to solve problems in the workplace.

The following critical cross-field outcomes are embedded in the associated unit standards:

  • Identifying and solving problems in which responses indicate that responsible decisions using critical and creative thinking have been made.
  • Working effectively with others as a member of a team, group, organisation or community.
  • Organising and managing oneself and one’s activities responsibly and effectively.
  • Collecting, analysing, organising and critically evaluating information.
  • Communicating effectively using visual, maths and/or language, such as English, skills in the modes of oral or written persuasion.
  • Using science and technology effectively and critically, showing responsibility towards the environment and health of others.
  • Demonstrating an understanding of the world as a set of related systems by recognising that problem-solving contexts do not exist in isolation.


Maths teachers perform poorly in examinations their learners should be able to master

South Africans’ sub-standard performance in maths is as a result of a larger problem. This is the quality of teaching provided by South Africa’s maths teachers. B.Ed students have the lowest average entry requirements and matric scores of all the degrees available at universities. These students also accomplish less than learners studying other fields at university. This is despite the critical role that teachers play in shaping the future of the country by equipping young South Africans with the skills that they need to participate in and help grow the economy. More focus should, therefore, be placed on who is selected to be trained as teachers by institutions of higher learning.

The report has showed that new teachers entering the education system straight from university perform poorly on maths tests that their students should be able to master. How then are they supposed to teach maths to young learners? This is a problem that has persisted since 2007. It is of particular concern in poor outlying areas of the country, where the quality of education provided by teachers has been questioned on numerous occasions. The panel has recommended a number of urgent interventions to stem the tide. This includes setting up a universal external Grade 2 assessment of reading and that government spends at least R1,3-billion a year to provide high quality reading materials to support teachers. Moreover, the panel has suggested that provision be made for a standard minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation phase classrooms, while also suggesting an audit of university education programmes.


Accredited training provider responds to call to uplift English literacy and numeracy skills

Triple E Training, an accredited training provider, continues to help businesses of all sizes operating across a broad spectrum of industries upgrade employees’ English literacy and basic maths skills. This is achieved via quality adult literacy training and adult numeracy training. This adult basic education and training or “ABET” is geared specifically at low skilled employees who need to raise their English literacy and maths proficiencies. The accredited training provider is also entrusted with community development programmes as part of companies’ corporate-social investment initiatives.

This adult literacy training and adult numeracy training is designed to have a significant and lasting impact on poor communities where people do not have basic English literacy and numeracy skills. Learn more about this accredited training provider and its unique approach to adult literacy training and adult numeracy training. www.eee.co.za.

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