Reading, numeracy, and mother-tongue education are the foundation stones for inclusion.
Addressing the pressing challenges confronting early childhood education in South Africa must include reading and numeracy skills, preferably taught in the child’s mother tongue, if present societal issues are to be permanently addressed, says the Old Mutual Foundation.
“The statistics are alarming—four out of five Grade 6 learners cannot comprehend age-appropriate reading material,” comments Tabby Tsengiwe, General Manager of Public Affairs.
She points out that this finding, by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, shines a spotlight on the dire position within early-grade education, and explains why reading challenges extend beyond matric and into adulthood.
The base of the problem is that South Africa has 11 official languages, which adds another layer of complexity to teaching and learning, as it impacts the quality of instruction. UNESCO estimates that 20% of South African students are not taught in their mother tongue. For these learners, effectively grasping concepts is hampered by adapting to this reality.
The consequences of poor literacy and a lack of mother-tongue education leaves a lasting negative social impact long after schooling has been completed.
These impacts were brought into sharp focus by the recent admission that 298 municipal councillors in KwaZulu-Natal are functionally illiterate. This has many implications on the ability of the incumbents to deliver professional services, control budgets, and deliver services.
In response to this, the Old Mutual Foundation (OMF) has, through its comprehensive education focus, been promoting multilingualism, reading and numeracy in the foundation phase of schooling.
OMF has made inroads in upscaling its Literacy and Numeracy or ‘LitNum Programme’ over the past few years. To date, more than 25 000 foundation phase learners, 500 teachers and 220 School Management Teammembers across 150 schools in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo Province have participated in the programme.
Old Mutual has also built successful strategic initiatives and partnerships with the government through the Department of Basic Education (DBE).
The Group’s collaboration with the DBE includes support for the founding of its Language Unit, which seeks to enhance numeracy and literacy levels from Grade RR to Grade 7, by adopting a ‘home language/bi/multilingual’ teaching approach. Ultimately, this could lead to the implementation of a national ‘Language in Education’ Policy beyond Grade 3.
In 2022, together with the DBE’s Research Coordination, Monitoring and Evaluation unit, a pilot programme for Xitsonga was launched in 120 schools in the Mopani and Vhembe Districts of Limpopo. A report on this study will be available to the public in November 2023.
Additionally, an entry-level Intermediate Phase teachers’ programme focusing on Grade 4 Maths (IsiXhosa and Sesotho), multilingualism and multilingual pedagogies is being developed by the Nelson Mandela Institute and the Eastern Cape Department of Education’s Language Unit.
At the tertiary education level, Old Mutual has collaborated with the University of Johannesburg to create a reading pedagogy course for student teachers as part of the Bachelor of Education (BEd) programme. The resources for this course are presently available in isiZulu, Sesotho, and English First Additional Language.
These initiatives reflect Old Mutual’s deep involvement in promoting reading and numeric literacy and an ongoing commitment to helping create a nation of young learners who are confident in their abilities, and more likely to excel in their studies. This, in turn, should lead to a reversal of the 40% school drop-out rate for Grades 1 to 12.
At its core, mother-tongue education is about preserving cultural identities and our rich cultural diversity. At a practical level, it has been proven that mother-tongue teaching enhances cognitive development as children learn more effectively. Those with a strong mother-tongue educational base have also been found to assimilate other language skills more easily, something which is often required for academic and professional success.
Of note is that mother-tongue tuition encourages parents to participate in their children’s education. Being proficient in their home language enables them to join a child’s educational journey and provide guidance and support – improving educational outcomes.
Ultimately, investing in the critical foundation phase of education and supporting mother-tongue education is about transforming how teaching happens so that we can transform society in the process.
In a competitive society, literate people are more likely to participate in the mainstream economy and access financial services. Old Mutual actively supports financial education through several programmes, addressing knowledge gaps where possible.
Through our commitment to education, we stress that there is no substitute for early education and the head-start it gives individuals to live fuller, rewarding lives. As a business that has served South Africans for over a century, we believe that what is good for South Africa is good for Old Mutual.
 The status of mother tongue education in South Africa: a comparative perspective. De Wet Corene and Niemann Steve. Year of publication 1999