Realising the right to a basic education in South Africa

Shaun Franklin & Daniel McLaren


Is South Africa meeting its constitutional and other legal obligations in making quality basic education accessible to all? This report finds that while progress has been made on access to basic education, quality and adequacy remain key issues that the government needs to address. This paper aims to guide the government in how to better fulfil these obligations and to provide information for civil society to hold the South African government to account.

Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), in partnership with the South African Human Rights Commission, developed the Socio-Economic Rights (SERs) monitoring tool. It involves a 3-step model combines analyses of: socio-economic policy efforts, the allocation and expenditure of resources for SERs and how people actually enjoy these rights using outcome indicators measuring adequacy, quality and access.

Key findings

While learner enrolment rates have improved during the compulsory schooling phase, outcomes beyond this continue to be low with low levels of literacy in early years learners and less than half of 22-25 years olds completing Grade 12 and attaining their Senior Certificate.

Gender parity has improved substantially. Female learners are now more likely than their male counterparts to progress through primary and secondary school.

Policy efforts to expand access to basic education has been largely successful. However, the system continues to suffer from high levels of inequality and issues of quality. Factors to relating to poor results in quality of education include:

  • Insufficient inputs: poor teacher subject knowledge and pedagogical skills, low levels of curriculum coverage, high rates of teacher absenteeism, lack of libraries and access to reading materials, and lack of quality infrastructure.
  • Structural inadequacies: insufficient monitoring, support and accountability practices in many instances cause or perpetuate the inadequate state of curriculum delivery that occur in far too many schools and their classrooms.
  • Obstructive behaviour by interest groups: for example, appointments to key management positions based on patronage rather than merit, and insufficient monitoring and oversight of the quality of teaching.
  • Budget: Despite basic education being a continued priority for the South African government, its share of government spending has been declining since 2011/2012. Spending per learner has increased in real terms since 1999 at both the primary and secondary school levels, but is less than other middle-income countries in terms of proportion of spending or per capita GDP.


The paper recommends improving capacity within the education sector and managing relationships between different critical actors. This will involve upskilling teachers, principals and other key school-level managers, building the capacity of district offices and their officials to ensure effective monitoring and support for schools and overseeing the coordination of relationships between the central government, local officials, labour parties and private organisations involved in the delivery of education resources and related services.  For this to be successful, the government needs to implement uniform norms and standards that clearly define these mandates, set targets and hold actors accountable for their performance, and make provisions for how to respond to delivery failures efficiently.


Franklin, S., & McLaren, D. (2015). Realising the right to a basic education in South Africa: an analysis of the content, policy effort, resource allocation and enjoyment of the constitutional right to a basic education. Johannesburg: Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), Working Paper 10.