The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) launched a series of reports on South Africa’s education system today.

CDE’S Executive Director, Ann Bernstein, called for a new Minister of Basic Education, Director-General and top team at national and provincial levels tasked with urgently moving South Africa off the bottom of international tables for mathematics, science and reading.

“The President speaks of a ‘silent revolution’, while the Minister talks of a ‘system on the rise’. The truth is that we face a silent crisis in our schools: South Africa has one of the worst performing education systems in the world,” Bernstein said.

South Africa achieved improvements in learning outcomes between the early 2000s and mid-2010’s but this hopeful trajectory has not been sustained.

• 2021: after a year of school more than 50% of Grade 1 learners don’t know all the letters in the alphabet

• 2016 (the last time these tests occurred): 78% of Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning – in any language.

• 2019: 62% of Grade 5 learners do not have “basic mathematical knowledge”.

• 2020/ 2021: Covid 19 lockdowns devastated learning in SA (as elsewhere). Experts believe the average 10-year-old knows less than the average 9-year-old before the pandemic.

Bernstein says: “South Africa’s comparative performance is shocking. When our learners take international tests, we are either last or in the bottom three countries. Even more devastating, while other countries test Grade 4s, we test Grade 5s; when they test Grade 8s, we test Grade 9s.”

Many countries poorer than South Africa outperform us in these tests including Morocco, Egypt, Georgia, Kosovo and Albania. According to the World Bank, South Africa is the world’s biggest underperformer in education among countries with a similar GDP per capita.

“We need to ask why SA’s schooling system performs so badly, “says Bernstein. “An accurate diagnosis is a precondition for deciding how to fix this system.”

The poverty of learners and their families as well as ongoing infrastructural deficits all play a role. However, critical structural issues have to be addressed.

Four out of five teachers in public schools lack the content knowledge and pedagogical skills to teach their subjects: in maths for example, proficiency levels of South African teachers (41%) rank far below that of their peers in Kenya (95%) and Zimbabwe (87%). And South Africa has the highest teacher absenteeism rate of all SADC countries.

“There is little accountability in our vast education system. This is a primary reason for teacher underperformance. SADTU – the country’s dominant teacher union – has agitated against proper performance management for teachers and the national department has caved in time and again.”

The education system has been compromised by corruption, cadre deployment and too many incompetent staff members: an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy fails to give teachers the support they need and does not hold them accountable for poor performance.

A 2016 ministerial task team (MTT) found that in “six and possibly more of the nine provinces … SADTU is in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education”.

Bernstein argues that this is “a stunning finding, as was the Minister’s 2015 statement that SADTU had a “stranglehold” over SA’s schooling system.” The MTT found that all deputy directors general of the DBE were SADTU members, frequently attending union meetings.

“Despite findings of criminality by the MTT, no government official implicated in the 2014-2015 ‘jobs for cash’ scandals has been prosecuted or suspended. Not one of the key MTT recommendations to fight corruption and push back state capture has been implemented to this day.”

Bernstein argues that this is “a gross dereliction of duty by government, a total failure of responsibility to the schools and learners of the country.”

“The time has come for civil society, business, all political parties, parents and the public to up the pressure on government: we all need to push for systemwide reforms that significantly improve the quality of teaching in the classroom.” said Bernstein.

CDE recommendations focus on five areas for action to improve education outcomes:

1. Tackle corruption and state capture in education through the prohibition of cadre deployment and introducing measures that remove SADTU’s stranglehold on education departments.

2. Raise accountability levels by bringing back the Annual National Assessment (ANA) tests for Grades 1 to 9, reinvigorating an independent National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU), and giving principals more power over the appointment and management of teachers in their schools.

3. Improve teacher performance by introducing higher standards of teacher training, more effective support for existing teachers and the urgent recruitment of skilled foreign teachers in areas of shortage (maths and science).

4. Install fresh leadership in public education. South Africa needs a new Minister of Basic Education, DG and top team at national and provincial levels to achieve systemwide reform. The President’s full support for tough political decisions is essential.

5. Set realistic national and provincial performance goals. Stretch targets are required to move off the bottom of international tests. Ensuring all 10-year-olds can read for meaning by 2030 is another excellent goal, but this presidential aspiration dating back to 2019 must be accompanied by a plan, a budget and regular reporting on progresss.

Evidence from global studies shows that successful reform programmes can start producing meaningful results in 3-5 years. For example, Peru’s reforms, a major Latin American success story, produced increases of almost 8 percent in reading and science and 6 percent in maths for Grade 3 learners between 2009 and 2015.These are the kind of improvements that, if sustained, will get us off the bottom of international standardised testing tables.

Bernstein concluded by saying: “There will be people who ask why CDE wants to add another priority to SA’s growing list of absolutely imperative national crises to be fixed. This is an important question. However, we would respond by asking: Are you prepared to condemn another generation of young South Africans to an appalling education?

It’s way past time to significantly improve the dismal education we provide in the majority of our public schools today.

For media enquiries and interview requests, please contact Refiloe Benjamin: | 011 482 5140.


The Silent Crisis is a series of five CDE reports offering diagnosis, priorities and recommendations for basic education reform. Click on the links below for each report:

ONE: South Africa’s failing education system

TWO: What’s wrong with our education system?

THREE: The forgotten story of state capture in education

FOUR: Lessons for education reformers

FIVE: Time to fix South Africa’s schools

To read the executive summary: click here.


CDE is an independent policy research and advocacy organisation. It is South Africa’s leading development think tank, focusing on critical development issues and their relationship to economic growth and democratic consolidation. Through examining South African realities and international experience, coupled with high-level forums, workshops and roundtables, CDE formulates practical policy proposals outlining ways in which South Africa can tackle major social and economic challenges.