SOUTH Africa's government has launched its first major effort to extend free quality education to the poor. Funding for the most deprived 20 per cent of the nation's children will be trebled over the next three years.
Education minister Kader Asmal announced the ambitious plan on the 27th anniversary of June 16, the day pupils in Soweto rose up against apartheid.
Eventually two in three pupils will be eligible.
From next year, R450 (pound;35) a year, double the current amount, will be spent on the poorest pupils. This will rise each year, to R703 in 2006, to cover books, support material, stationery, electricity, water, maintenance and equipment and free meals.
In a country where quality education has always been beyond the means of most the plan has been welcomed as a big step towards more equitable access to education. But there are concerns about the capacity of provincial departments and poor schools to manage the funds and deliver improvements.
Mr Asmal's plan, which goes some way towards the African National Congress's promise of free education for all, was well timed. It followed accusations that the minister valued school-leaving exam results above equality. There were also concerns about poor literacy and numeracy among eight and nine-year-olds.
The media have accused Mr Asmal of placing such pressure on schools to improve final exam results - the pass rate must rise by 5 per cent a year - that they are holding back pupils who might fail.
While the pass rate soared from 49 per cent in 1999 to 69 per cent last year, the number of pupils taking the tests dropped from 553,000 in 1998 to 444,000 last year. Only four in 10 pupils now make it to the final year of school.
Schools are not allowed to fail secondary pupils more than once. This has led to under-prepared children being pushed through the system until eventually teachers are forced to hold them back, some experts said.
HIVAids, lack of job prospects, drugs and crime were also to blame for the drop-outs.
Education director-general Thami Mseleku admitted that keeping pupils in school was a "challenge". But the government holds schools responsible for "disappearing" pupils because they want pass rates, crucial to measuring performance, to look better.
The second blow came from the first major study of schooling, carried out in 2001 by the government and major research institutions, but only just published. The National Report on Systemic Evaluation in the Foundation Phase tested 52,000 pupils at 1,400 schools.
Pupils in the third year of school scored an average of 39 per cent for reading and writing, 30 per cent for numeracy, 68 per cent in listening tests and 54 per cent for life skills.
Experts blamed the poor results on inadequate teacher training, but there are other factors such as shortage of books and resources and lack of education among parents.
Home resources were important to improving learning, but only one in three families had televisions, radios, phones, computers, books or magazines, said the report. Only 27 per cent of schools have libraries.
Mr Asmal said the fact that 90 per cent of infants went to school - high in the developing world - and apartheid's "legacy of deprivation" meant the results were not alarming.