Hijacked by the urgent we neglect the important (SA Budget 2019)
(This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on the 21st of February 2019 under the title “Tablets won’t cure pupil problems“)
Reading through the Treasury’s meticulous budget documents the contrast between the State of the Nation (SONA) and the Budget becomes starkly apparent. SONA is the aspirational shopping list the President gives the Finance Minister. The Budget is what is actually in the trolley when he walks out the shop. The President can announce whatever he likes but until it manifests in the Budget then it remains in the collective dreamscape of the ANC.
So, it should come as no surprise then that this budget wasn’t a SONA-Budget, it was an Eskom-budget. In a context of low growth and imminent catastrophe there is only so much that can be done. And if you can’t keep the lights on then nothing else matters anyway. Given that others will deal with Eskom, and the big push in infrastructure spending I will focus exclusively on Basic Education.
In short this was a business-as-usual education budget. Most of the sensational elements of the President’s SONA as far as education is concerned were conveniently left out of the budget. There was no mention of one-tablet-per-child and nothing about “two years of compulsory early childhood development (ECD)”. What a relief! There is no evidence that either of these would be a good use of limited funds. One tablet per child policies are universally regarded as being foolish, and have failed in every country they have been implemented, rich or poor. Existing evaluations of our current Grade R year indicate that children don’t actually benefit that much from it because the quality is so low. The received wisdom in the sector is to make Grade R worthwhile before adding on another low-quality questionable-value year of ECD.
To their credit, Treasury has prioritized the eradication of pit latrines in 2,400 schools by allocating an additional R2,8billion over the next three years. Interestingly, these funds won’t be given to provinces to spend – perhaps because the more dysfunctional provinces failed to spend their school infrastructure funds in the past – and instead will be managed nationally by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and spent “on their behalf” (p.69). Perhaps this is a sign of the political times with a strong-handed national approach rather than the traditional federalist provincial implementation of policies.
While the least feasible (and most expensive) proposals from SONA were ignored, so were the most important and highest impact ones: focusing on fixing early grade reading. In the SONA the President explained that early grade reading “is possibly the single most important factor in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality” Well, not according to the Finance Minister because no money was allocated to it. There was no mention of reading at all except for some lip-service about an Early Grade Reading Assessment which is actually a pre-existing initiative and receives less than R10-million per year. This is a shame and represents yet another year that we kick the education can down the road. The problem with a business-as-usual budget is when business-as-usual isn’t working in education. The two most reliable international assessments South Africa takes part in either show a slow-down in progress (in Grade 9 mathematics between 2011-2015) or no improvement at all (in Grade 4 reading between 2011 and 2016) (see here). There are a number of reasons to speculate why results are stagnating. Due to a 13% surge in births in 2003-2005 (most probably due to ARVs) without a concomitant rise in education spending, we are seeing increases in the number of learners per class, rising from 40 to 45 learners per class in primary schools and 41-48 learners in no-fee schools (according to Pirls 2016). What we needed from this budget was a recognition that the long-term struggles of the country (unemployment, inequality, low growth) cannot be addressed when 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. And that while reforming basic education is a long-term solution, long-term solutions have to start somewhere.
I have a lot of sympathy for Treasury officials who work tirelessly to make sure that the country is economically on track and deftly navigate the trade-offs, prioritization and budget constraints that are the real politics of any democracy. There is no doubt that neutralizing the Eskom threat was the number one challenge we needed to overcome in this budget. Yet there will always be a new urgent challenge that grabs our attention and is considered political dynamite – #FeesMustFall in 2017/18 Eskom in 2019/2020 – surely there will be others. Hats off to Minister Mboweni and his Treasury officials for steering us through the current crisis. Let’s hope his successor can move from dealing with crisis upon crisis and instead start laying the foundations for long term progress.