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South Africa's education system is grappling with a major crisis as the results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were unveiled by the Department of Basic Education this week.

The findings reveal an alarming 81% of grade 4 pupils assessed in the international study cannot read for meaning.

This represents a distressing 3% decline in literacy rates since the previous assessment conducted in 2016. South African education and employment NGO youth@WORK says the tools to improve literacy rates are readily available, but the key lies in ensuring widespread access to these resources across as many schools as possible. "When children struggle to read, it is often an indication of broader deficiencies within the education system, encompassing math, science, and the humanities," explains Erica Kempken, Co-Founder and Director of youth@WORK. "What is particularly frustrating is that we possess the necessary tools, technology, and resources to reverse this trajectory. This is an opportune for collaboration and collective action," she adds.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga attributes the dismal statistics to the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, certain grades lost a staggering 60% of teaching time, followed by a 50% loss in 2021. Consequently, South African schoolchildren have suffered severe setbacks in their educational development, hindering their ability to acquire essential reading skills.

Kempken notes that failure to take immediate action will have dire consequences for South Africa's economy and society. "Our youth are ill-prepared to enter the workforce as engaged, skilled citizens capable of driving our economy forward. Substandard education perpetuates youth unemployment, which not only exacerbates human capital deficits but also undermines sustainable growth and poverty reduction," warns Kempken.

According to Kempken, youth@WORK believes that digital tools such as their recently launched youthPROFILER hold the key to alleviating the burden on South Africa's education system. youthPROFILER is uniquely positioned to assist teachers, parents, and learners in measuring and strengthening literacy and numeracy skills. Leveraging complex algorithms, this tool identifies skills gaps and provides workbooks, videos, and activities that parents and teachers can utilize to bridge those gaps effectively. In addition to its technological initiatives, youth@WORK actively works to connect unemployed South African youth with internship opportunities across various sectors, including education. Through the generous support of corporate funders, the organization believes this program could also contribute to raising literacy and numeracy levels. "Funded youth could play a meaningful role in administering this service, as Minister Motshekga acknowledges the time constraints faced by teachers in providing additional support," explains Kempken.

"Studies like these serve as a stark reminder that we are not doing enough to address the crisis in basic education and create opportunities for the next generation of South Africans entering the workforce," states Kempken. She appeals to all South African schools, parents, businesses, and corporations to explore partnership opportunities with organizations like youth@WORK, ensuring that children have access to the necessary tools and opportunities to thrive.

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