Before heading to Johannesburg, South Africa on this study tour of teachers with the Council for Economic Education and the U.S. Department of Education, teachers who were selected for this tour met in Washington, DC for three days to get to know each other, learn more about life in South Africa, the education system within South Africa, how it differs from the U.S. education system, and to meet with Congressional delegations before departing.
One of the highlights of the orientation was meeting and hearing from Elzmarie Oosthuizen, a South African from the University of the Free State, who shared with us about the South African education system, the people of South Africa, the lingering effects of apartheid on the culture of South Africans and the effects it has had on poverty and unemployment there.
Some key points from her discussion with us included:
- In a population of 49.3 million people, 12.3 million are children and are learners in South Africa (note: they don’t call them students in middle and high school, but learners; they are called students when they matriculate/graduate and then enter university)
- Approximately 6,000 schools for grades 8-12; about 21,000 for grades below that
- There are no buses for learners! Some students walk as many as 5-6 miles to school each day. Many leave home as early as 5 am to get to school on time. They value education that much!
- Many learners are the head of their household. Because HIV and AIDS are devastating so many families in South Africa, many older learners may be raising their younger brothers and sisters
- The teacher-to-student ratio is about 32.5:1, meaning that in each classroom, on average, there are about 32.5 learners
- Two-thirds of all learners have dropped out by the time they reach the 10th grade, many because of family issues, disease, or other outside factors
- Less than 10 percent of learners go on to university
These are some sobering statistics about the odds that are stacked against these learners in South Africa. It’s amazing that despite the adversity facing them, so many of these students see education as their ticket out of poverty. They see education as the key to changing their life for the better.