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SAFTU shocked at decline in education spending per learner

The South African Federation of Trade Unions is shocked by the report that government spending on basic education per learner over the past seven years has declined by 8% in real terms.

Total expenditure on education, in money terms, over the last seven year has increased by the rate of inflation, about 7% a year, but in this period there was a big increase in the number of new learners, as a result of a sharp rise in the birth-rate between 2003 and 2005, which only came down slightly in 2008.

As a result of this increase, grade 1 enrollments showed a similar rise five years later, from 2008 onwards, as the extra children started school. The consequence of this increase (plus  higher retention in the schooling system) has meant that there were about 670,000 more pupils in 2016 than there were in 2010.

That led to larger classes, fewer books and fewer teachers per child, because of this increasing number of learners, but without in an equivalent increase in income between 2010 and 2017, but on the contrary an 8% decline.

In 2010 government spent an average of R17,822 per child, (based on the value of the rand in 2017), but this dropped to R16,435 in 2017 and it is projected to decrease further to R15,963 by 2019. This will mean a 10% decline in funding per pupil in the 10 years, from  2010 to 2019.

The traditional inflation rate, measured by the Consumer Price Index, is inappropriate for education, because it does not reflect how much it would cost in 2018 to buy the same basket of education goods – salaries, books, school maintenance, etc that were bought in 2010.

This fall in state funding helps to explain the declines in the quality of basic education which the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (Pirls) revealed. It showed that 78% of grade 4s cannot read for meaning and 66% of grade 5s cannot do basic maths.

The study also showed that the average class size of grade 4 classes in SA was 40 in 2011, but increased to 45 in 2016. This average however ides the reality that the largest increases occurred in the poorest schools. Class sizes increased in the schools with 60% of the poorest learners  from 41 to 48 per class over the same period. In the schools attended by the  richest 10% of pupils, class sizes only increased from 33 to 35 per class.

These findings cannot be unrelated to the drop in spending per pupil over the same period, and this will get even worse after the recent austerity budget which shifted increases from basic to higher education budget allocations, following Jacob Zuma’s new policy of free higher education for poor and working-class families, which was confirmed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018).

As a result the budget raised spending on higher education by R57bn over the next three years.

SAFTU fully supports this increase and for the call for free higher education for all, but this must not be done at the expense of increases for basic education, which is no less vital. The poor will never be able to get free higher education if primary and secondary education is so underfunded and inadequate that learners do not have the basic foundation of skills and knowledge to be able to move from to the tertiary level.

The federation demands that the government urgently increase the budget for basic education to take account of these cuts in spending in real terms.

When campaigning against South Africa’s terrible levels of poverty and inequality, SAFTU has never looked only at the incomes, or lack of incomes, received by workers, but always also at the decline of the social wage. This is the proportion of public expenditure going to improve vital services like education, housing, healthcare, social grants and public transport.

We now have clear evidence that in basic education the social wage is in decline. SAFTU demands that similar studies be urgency undertaken of all public service to compare the overall amount of money spend with the amount per person benefitting from those services, e.g. the number of patients in state hospitals.

If similar findings emerge as in basic education – that spending per person is falling – there should also be revised budget and extra funds released to make up the shortfall, so that the budget is based on the cost per user of the service.

This new report provides further evidence of the extent and depth of the economic and social crisis we face. Everyone across the social and political spectrum says how crucial education is in promoting economic growth and creating jobs, yet here is evidence that we are not serious, by allowing a decline in this investment in the future when we should be increasing it.