ABET Funding: Failing the Second Economy by Andrew Miller

Wednesday, 7 September, 2005 - 12:18

8 September is International Literacy Day and this is Adult Learners Week. Looking back over the last ten years, the ground has moved dramatically and not all for the better for those providing ABET (

8 September is International Literacy Day and this is Adult Learners Week. Looking back over the last ten years, the ground has moved dramatically and not all for the better for those providing ABET (adult basic education and training) and literacy. In apartheid South Africa literacy organisations received masses of foreign and local donor funding. It was generally agreed that one of the worst long-term effects of Bantu education was the high level of illiteracy amongst black adults. Using world definitions, nearly one in two black adults are under schooled or have received no formal schooling at all. Donors including the European Union, USAID, the Joint Education Trust, the Royal Netherlands Embassy, the Transitional National Development Trust (now National Development Agency) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund amongst many others saw the strategic importance of building a strong Non Governmental Organisation network which would service a plethora of community based organisations offering literacy.

In a real sense, this was the heyday for civil society led initiatives within the literacy world. Many will recall organisations such as Learn and Teach, Teach English Language and Literacy (TELL), Use Speak and Write English (USWE), Eastern Cape Adult Literacy Project (ECALP), Natal ABE Support Agency (NASA), Wits Workers School and the National Literacy Co-operative. All of these organisations are now dead and most of the community based organisations they supported no longer receive funding. All that has been left behind is some of the best materials in the world as generous funding meant quality learner support materials produced at a high cost.

In the past ten years one has seen the State play a very active role in policy initiatives but not in funding. South Africa, unlike much of the world, has moved ABET into the formal sphere, viz. formal curricula, formal exams, formal quality assurance and formal qualifications. ABET is registered on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and is used in many workplaces as a way of getting access for employees to Learnerships and further training. The current system has benefited employed people or those wishing to enter the formal economy. For example, a mine worker can see the link between an ABET Level 4 qualification and then undergoing training for a blasting certificate which means more money and some upward mobility. Likewise a packer in a supermarket can see the link between Communications and Maths at Level 4 and NQF 1 Learnership through the Wholesale & Rretail SETA. For some the equivalency with the formal schooling system and the rigid application of norms and standards has been a plus.

Sadly this one tracked approach has been the kiss of death for community based literacy projects which attempted to link a little formal learning with skills acquisitions. Falling outside the formal learning path has meant that the state has no ability to fund such worthy projects. Donors have argued that the provision of literacy in a democratic society is the responsibility of the state. Yet research by IDASA’s budget review team and an annual review by the University of KwaZulu Natal show that in most provinces, actual expenditure on ABET has declined as a percentage of the education budget and not increased.

Why care? The fact that so many South Africans remain cut out of the opportunities offered by formal training and accreditation is a problem for individuals and for the economy. The current policy is a good example of President Mbeki’s two South Africas, for it is largely rural men and women who bare the brunt of Apartheid's cruel legacy. Unskilled, poor, unable to access government grants, bullied or bribed by officialdom, and often too weak to take on poor schooling of their children or demand decent health care from public facilities: these are the South Africans we continue to fail. The one attempt by Government to reach these people was conceptually flawed but had the right intentions. The South African National Literacy Initiative (SANLI) launched by then Minister Asmal attempted to offer basic literacy and numeracy to rural communities and those living in informal settlements. Its fundamental flaw was under funding. The premise of the delivery model was based on using volunteers who received a R300 stipend for their efforts each month. Project Literacy managed this project in the Western and Northern Cape and, whilst there were notable exceptions, most educators were young unemployed people who found work after a few months, which meant an enormous turnover of educators. The concept of volunteerism when applied to poor and unemployed people is worthy of a debate all on its own! What was important was the recognition that literacy must be made relevant to people’s lives and (often) modest ambitions and must be taken to people where they live. The public adult learning centres are often too thinly spread, inaccessible and work at night.

Hope lies in Minister Pandor's attempts to acknowledge the divide between formal ABET and the acquisition of basic literacy, in the enormous funding put aside in the new National Skills Development strategy to reach hundreds of thousands of unemployed adult learners and in a growing swell of support for concepts such as family literacy projects to improve school performance of rural poor children.

So yes, we’ve moved a long way in the last 10 years. For civil society it has not all been good news. We need to push government to pursue better partnerships around delivery and funding, and we need to state that, without both international and local donor funding, we will never really impact on the lives of the millions who live each day with apartheid’s worst legacy, illiteracy.

Andrew Miller is the CEO of Project Literacy .

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