RESEP launches its synthesis report entitled “A Society Divided: How Unequal Education Quality Limits Social Mobility in South Africa”

On Friday, 24 March 2017, RESEP launched its synthesis report entitled “A Society Divided: How Unequal Education Quality Limits Social Mobility in South Africa”. The research project was headed up by Prof Servaas van der Berg and the report incorporates the research of about 20 authors. The central focus of the report is the role of education in promoting social mobility for the poor in the highly unequal South African economic landscape. The investigation is of particular relevance in a country where the rapid expansion of educational attainment since the 1970s has not produced the desired labour market outcomes for many South Africans, for the most part perpetuating patterns of poverty and inequality along the apartheid dimensions of race and geography.

Given the deep structural nature of inequality in South Africa, this report employs a conceptual framework (shown Figure E1) to illustrate how differences in education quality offered to South African learners are at the root of income inequality that persists two decades into democracy. The grim labour market prospects facing South Africa’s young adults are in large part attributable to an education system that still manages to produce vastly different education outcomes that favour a small elite in the wealthy part of that system and disadvantage mainly black and coloured learners in the less affluent part of the system.

A small minority of learners attend functional, high quality (mostly former white) schools, staffed by qualified teachers and characterised by good management, assessment and parental involvement. Learners graduating from these schools have relatively good chances of entering the upper end of the labour market, often (but not always) first acquiring some form of tertiary education. The high productivity jobs in this part of the labour market offer high returns. Traditionally this part of the labour market has been dominated by whites, but the removal of apartheid era restrictions, government interventions (such as black economic empowerment and affirmative action) and improved access to better quality education for some black children have allowed a relatively small black minority to achieve upward social mobility through the labour market.

In contrast, the majority of South Africa’s (mostly black) learners attend formerly black schools. These schools, that often also suffer from poor management, little parental participation and poor assessment, produce poor cognitive outcomes, which are poorly rewarded in the labour market, resulting in low employment probabilities and low wages from unskilled occupations. While the transition from low quality schools to low productivity jobs is relatively deterministic, it is possible for individuals from this part of the education system to access the high productivity part of the labour market through vocational training, affirmative action or other forms of labour market mobility.

This conceptual framework is used throughout the report to discuss how education, and particularly education quality, are critical inputs in advancing social mobility for South Africa’s economically vulnerable citizens.

Main findings

  • Performance on international and national standardised tests show that while educational attainment has converged dramatically over time between races, poor schools still lag far behind their affluent counterparts in learning outcomes. By Grade 9, learners in poor (mostly black) schools, have a backlog of about 3½ years relative to their rich school counterparts.
  • Substantial learning gaps between learners in different schools can be observed as early as the middle primary school years, making a strong case for decisive early interventions. As early as Grade 4, fewer than 30% of learners in the poorest 40 percent of schools are performing above international low learning benchmarks.
  • Education is an important predictor of labour market outcomes, with education beyond matric improving prospects both for employment and higher salaries. In 2007 the wage per hour of someone who had achieved a degree was three times as large as for someone who had achieved only a matriculation.
  • New evidence suggests that school education quality is also strongly positively associated with future earnings. Therefore, learners who attend poor quality schools generally earn substantially less than those who attend good quality schools, even when they have the same education levels.
  • The consequences of unequal education opportunities are particularly dire for many of South Africa’s black youth, who despite having more education than previous generations and no longer facing discriminatory labour market legislation, have no better employment probabilities than older labour market participants. Thus, despite more education, young black South Africans are less optimistic about their future.

Thus far, the report has featured in the Mail & Guardian as well as in News24.

The report can be downloaded in PDF format, here.

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