Human Rights Day: The right to education remains elusive. Why is this so?

Dorcas Dube-Londt Citizen Leader Lab national marketing and communications manager. Picture: Supplied

Dorcas Dube-Londt Citizen Leader Lab national marketing and communications manager. Picture: Supplied

Published Mar 21, 2024



The right to education does not mean the same as education for all; it means the right to education that aligns with one's financial means.

Rights do not necessarily mean equality. This is particularly so in conditions of profound social inequality, like South Africa. Patterns of privilege and disadvantage ripple extensively through the education system and beyond. Schools, which pupils attend, the teaching and learning environments experienced, the results attained, and the opportunities that arise after school, are distinctly unequal.

South Africa appears to have nearly universal access to basic education (fees notwithstanding), yet there are problems of quality within the system. The country has performed dismally on national and comparative international tests. Coming last out of the 50 participating countries in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2003 and last of 40 participating countries in the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

This implies that South Africa has essentially lost a decade of progress in reading with meaning which is a major concern. Where quality is in question to such a degree, access alone is not a sufficient indicator that the right to education has been achieved. The right to education must surely mean more than attending a school where teaching and learning are so poor that failure is guaranteed.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, quality education is not accessible to all. In February, matriculates received their final examination results and the statistics raise an important question about the state of education in the country. Although citizens celebrated the 83% matric pass rate, this does not discard the fact that 81% of grade 4’s cannot read for meaning. Surely, both notions cannot be true. In addition, South African Grade 9 pupils were ranked position 38 out of the 39 countries who took part in the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievements in Mathematics. Furthermore, stats illustrate that 25% of matriculates fail their final examination, approximately 50% of the pupils drop out of school before completing matric and under 5% of the pupils who commence primary school end up with a tertiary qualification.

Efforts to improve South Africa’s education system are vital as education is undoubtedly a way out of poverty and inequality experienced by most of the country’s population. Education is also a great tool for advancing economic growth, encouraging innovation, strengthening society and developing a thriving and equitable economy. Governments, international organisations and civil society are urged to collaborate and invest in education infrastructure, principal leadership and to develop inclusive policies that address the unique needs of marginalized communities. By prioritizing quality education as a basic right, we can contribute to the creation of a more just and equitable society that we so desperately desire.

As we observe Human Rights Day, it becomes evident that enhancing access to quality education holds significant potential as a driving force for positive transformation in South Africa, fostering a more just and prosperous future for its people.

Dorcas Dube-Londt serves as the national marketing and communications manager at Citizen Leader Lab. She is a seasoned researcher and scholar known for her dedication to social justice, education and leadership earning numerous accolades and recognition over the years. Dube-Londt is a PhD candidate at the University of Johannesburg.

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