The link between poverty and education is an old story. Education has always been used as a means to an end and as is the case in South Africa, the end is for education to be a tool to get people out of the poverty trap. To illustrate the poverty trap: if a child comes from a poor family (rural or peri-urban context) and the family has little or no experience of formal education, the child is likely to attend a school in the local school which is under resourced and serving a poor community. The child may not be able to escape the poverty trap because it is further entrenched by the education they receive and a vicious cycle is likely to continue where, if they have children their children will most likely have similar experiences if they remain in a poor community and school.

We often think that poorer countries are the only ones that face this problem however, countries like Australia have an interesting narrative. Recently I read about Russell, a teacher from Australia, who shared about the education of Aboriginal children. He is Gamilori (one of the Aboriginal groups in Australia) and teaches in a school where there are 6 Aboriginal teachers amongst 30 teachers. English is the dominant language in the school and indigenous languages are supposed to be introduced when the new curriculum is introduced. His teaching experience has meant that he has had to scaffold for Aboriginal children by speaking Aboriginal English as well as a dialect of English that Aboriginal children are more familiar with. It is very important to note that Aboriginal people in Australia are a cultural minority and the status in their country as the indigenous people of the country is still not fully recognised. This overlaps with the kind of education they receive. Because many Aboriginal parents had negative experiences while in school (mostly based on ethnic discrimination), therefore many are reluctant to intervene in the education of their children. Many Aboriginal children do not attend preschool and therefore enter formal school without the necessary preparation to start learning. Many have also not been exposed to reading or any kind of literacy before they enter school hence Russell describes them as “being three steps behind before they start [school]. They are playing catch up from day one”.

Australia (amongst many other countries) faces a challenge of the learning gap that persists between indigenous and non-indigenous students (Aboriginal and white students). The graph below indicates the gaps among grade 8 learners in Mathematics. Between 1994/5 and 2011 TIMMS assessments, the gap in achievement has been consistent where indigenous students score far below their peers. In South Africa, a similar pattern exists between the rich and the poor. This would be closely related to race and class where middle class (mostly white) students score higher than working class (mostly black and coloured) who score lower on literacy and numeracy.


In other countries such as England, Norway, United States, Italy, Hungary and New Zealand, when the achievement gap is compared amongst two grades (Grade 4 and 8), the achievement gap seems to widen as the learners progress though the grades. The 2011 TIMSS graph below compares the results by wealth and grade and there are distinct differences even if one is looking at the graph at face value.


Whenever the achievement gap is addressed, the question begs, now what? How can this situation be changed? In Russell’s context measures have been put in place to ensure that Aboriginal students are supported. There is also a large focus on the teachers who teach Aboriginal students (the teachers are often not Aboriginal themselves because few Aboriginal student make it into higher education to study further). Aboriginal communities are often in poor communities (but not always) and where there is a discrepancy of resources being made to schools where non-indigenous students are, the government has been challenged to change this so there is more equality among schools.

I use Australia as an example because in South Africa we think that our case is unique. We are not the only country grappling with an unequal education system. Countries that have managed to address these challenges such as some East Asian countries, Japan, Korea and Singapore have overcome the inequalities in the education system and the achievement gap between the rich and the poor is not as staggering. This mirrors the kind of society they have created where the gap between the rich and the poor has also been minimised. There seems to be a direct correlation between how a country’s wealth is distributed amongst citizens and the kind of education system they will have.

The disempowerment of the majority of people who receive a bad education, as is the case in South Africa, means that they often do not have the means to address this problem themselves. Even where NGOs have stepped in to raise the clarion call about the inequalities in our education system, there’s still little momentum amongst parents and teachers who are most affected. The disparate education systems do more harm than good and in South Africa we know this all too well. There seems to be a contentment with the situation, a shrugging of shoulders and acceptance that “it is what it is”. But this needn’t be the case. Our unequal education system is a bad idea for all of us not just the working class communities.

This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.


Athambile Masola

Athambile Masola

A teacher in Johannesburg.Interested in education,feminism and sometimes a bit of politics (with a small letter p).

Leave a comment