The majority of young people aged 20-34 in South Africa have a higher level of education than their parents. This was just one of the findings from a report on Educational Enrolment and Achievement for 2016, which Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) released recently.
High-quality training, education, research and innovation are key to the achievement of the objectives set out in the National Development Plan (Vision 2030). Education has been a highly contentious issue since the implementation of Bantu Education Act in 1953. More than 60 years later, the impact of this Act is still evident as South Africa struggles to find equality in the education it provides to all its learners.
Data from the Community Survey 2016 was used to analyse intergenerational educational mobility, i.e. whether or not children realised higher educational attainment than their parents. Positive trends were observed across all educational categories, with the largest improvement being seen in the completed secondary category – as compared to 17,9% of parents who had completed secondary schooling, 45,2% of their children aged 20-34 had completed secondary schooling, a 27-percentage point difference.
When comparing the educational attainment of individuals aged 20-34 to their parents’ educational level, it was found that close to 70% of those who had completed secondary schooling were first-generation high-school graduates. Similarly, just over 70% of those who completed post-secondary education were first-generation post-secondary qualification holders.
The data shows that the higher the parent’s education level, the more likely the children are to achieve upward educational mobility. Amongst children aged 20-34 who had completed a post-secondary educational qualification, 51% had parents with some or completed secondary schooling, and 19% had parents with some or completed primary schooling. While most white children with post-secondary qualifications also had parents with similar qualifications (56%), intergenerational transmission of similar qualifications was achieved by 28% coloureds, 27% Indians and 24% black Africans. The largest escalation in intergenerational mobility was observed among black Africans, with 76% of those who completed a post-secondary education having achieved a higher education level than their parents.
However, differences in intergenerational mobility have remained significant across population groups. The same families tend to constitute the most educated group from one generation to the next. Economists refer to this as the under-education trap, as some families remain unskilled from one generation to the next.
 Butler-Adam J. Education, training and innovation in the National Development Plan 2030. S Afr J Sci. 2013;109(1/2), Art. #a008, 1 page. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/sajs.2013/a008
Educational systems are set to promote learners solely on merit that is based on achievements in examinations and tests. Children with the required support, which includes better-educated parents, would pass these examinations and tests; hence, they would be better off compared to children with less educated parents. Consequently, until human capital convergence occurs, the under-education trap would persist. A fair education system would provide a path to upward mobility for the poor families. The South African education system is neither completely closed nor completely open to the poor, but the results in this report show that past structural inequality is still at play in educational mobility.
These are just some of the findings contained in the report. To download the complete document please click here.