Hope for the youth: turning SA education around

Jun 15, 2023
Introducing a school voucher system is the radical change South Africa desperately needs to give new hope to the millions of young people who continue to bear the brunt of the ANC government’s failure to provide a decent education.
Hope for the youth: turning SA education around

Introducing a school voucher system is the radical change South Africa desperately needs to give new hope to the millions of young people who continue to bear the brunt of the ANC government’s failure to provide a decent education.

This is the core proposal in the latest report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Too many young South Africans, the IRR notes, face another Youth Day knowing they have been let down by an education system whose pitiful outcomes fall far short of their own striving for a better future.

However, Overcoming the Odds: Why school vouchers would benefit poor South Africans, makes the case for a radical change that could turn South African education around. It argues that introducing a school voucher system would combine the market forces unleashed by parents and pupils making their own choices with the enhanced accountability that such empowerment would stimulate.

The report (available at https://irr.org.za/reports/occasional-reports/overcoming-the-odds-why-school-vouchers-would-benefit-poor-south-africans) was launched in an online briefing yesterday, in which IRR researcher and author of the report, Caiden Lang, highlighted the key findings.

The report begins with an overview of the poor state of basic education, which includes indicators such as the country’s consistently dismal performances in international benchmark tests as well as school through-put rates. Particular attention is given to the stark disparities in early-grade literacy and numeracy between pupils attending free schools and those attending fee-paying schools.

The reasons for focusing on early-grade reading and numeracy disparities are threefold. First, learning is a cumulative process. Children who cannot read well or don’t have a basic grasp of mathematics will struggle to achieve adequate understanding of other subjects as they progress through the grades. This often leads to despondency and apathy and is the reason many poor children drop out of school before writing their matric exams.

Second, it highlights the government’s inability to provide quality education to the poor despite its internationally competitive education spend. Government failure to effectively manage its resources, thereby turning the basic education sector into a ‘poverty trap’, speaks to the need to minimise state involvement in basic education as far as possible.

And, third, if the variables contributing to the disparities in outcomes between pupils whose parents are paying for education and those who are not, can be identified, this would provide policymakers with an idea of what interventions might work to improve pupil outcomes.

The report identifies several of these variables, including but not limited to, poor teacher content and pedagogical knowledge, teacher absenteeism, and the influence of teacher unions – all of which affect free schools more than fee-paying schools.

The conclusion drawn from the discussion of these variables is that a general lack of accountability at various levels is to blame for poor outcomes among poor South Africans.

Given this, the report argues that a school voucher system presents a viable intervention. Not only would it minimise the managerial role played by the state, thereby freeing up the department of basic education to focus on interventions specifically targeted at early-grade reading and numeracy – interventions proven to work – but by bringing market forces to bear on the education system, vouchers would also address the accountability problem.

Having schools compete for vouchers would create an incentive structure that rewards good performance while punishing poor performance. In addition, a voucher system would give parents the freedom to choose what they think is best for their child, an outcome that should be celebrated in a liberal democracy such as ours.

The overarching purpose of the report is to propose possible solutions to the education crisis in South Africa, and to add to the marketplace of ideas a plan that could turn our education system into ‘the great engine of personal development’ that Nelson Mandela once hoped for.


Media contacts: Caiden Lang, IRR researcher Tel: 072-239-6145 Email: caiden@irr.org.za

Terence Corrigan, IRR Projects and Publications Manager Tel: 066-470-4456 Email: terence@irr.org.za;

Media enquiries: Michael Morris Tel: 066 302 1968 Email: michael@irr.org.za


Sinalo Thuku, Tel: 073 932 8506 Email: sinalo@irr.org.za

Hope for the youth: turning SA education around

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