The 2030 Reading Panel

What needs to change for us to ensure that all children learn to read by 2030?

This is the question which will be addressed by a recently established panel chaired by former Deputy President Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Named the 2030 Reading Panel, its 17 members include distinguished academics, educationalists, philanthropists and leaders from civil society and the business sector.

An excellent background report has been written by one of its members, Stellenbosch economics professor Nic Spaull. (This and other reports are available on the 2030 Reading Panel’s website: As Spaull points out, reading for meaning is the single most important thing children learn in primary school. All subsequent learning depends on this fundamental skill of being able to accurately and quickly match the sounds in spoken language with the print on the page. If children do not master the “learning-to-read” phase of schooling (Grades R-3), they will not master the “reading-to-learn” part of school either.

Spaull’s report graphically reveals the extent of the challenge: 

  • By 2016 only 1 in 5 children in South Africa (22%) had learnt how to read in any language in their first three years of school. Compare that to England (97%), Chile (87%), Iran (65%), Morocco (36%) and Egypt (31%).
  • While the percentage of South African children that can read is very low, it did improve from 13% (in 2006) to 18% (in 2011) to 22% (in 2016). However, the Covid pandemic has been a huge setback for the education system.  Children in South Africa have lost an estimated 1,3 years of learning outcomes which is the equivalent of wiping out 6,5 years of progress.
  • Currently there is no credible plan to catch-up the large learning losses resulting from COVID-19 school closures and rotational timetables in South Africa. 
  • On South Africa’s pre-pandemic trajectory, only 36% of Grade 4s will be reading for meaning by 2031. And it will take until 2098 (another 77 years!) before 95% of Grade 4 children will be able to read for meaning. The post-pandemic trendline can only be worse.  

Spaull’s report does question whether there is the political will to achieve the 2030 goal. And the report highlights the huge challenge posed by the reality that 45% of publicly employed teachers will reach retirement age over the next 10 years. Compounding that challenge is the inadequacy of the training available for aspirant teachers. The report does not address directly the important issue of whether the Department of Basic Education itself has the necessary expertise and capability.  But it is hard to disagree with Spaull’s conclusion that nothing short of a sustained countrywide overhaul of the education system will be necessary if 90% of Grade 4 children are to read for meaning by 2031. In his view, it would require a complete restructuring of the way that teachers are recruited, trained, certified, supported, and evaluated. As well as far-reaching reforms on education financing, accountability and resourcing of schools. And the entire education system would need to be re-oriented towards reading in the early years.

Of particular interest to this commentator are Spaull’s views on the contribution which “philanthropies and corporate social Investment” can make to the achievement of the 2030 goal. Total philanthropic spending on education in South Africa in 2020 amounted to an estimated R5,4 billion, which was a mere 2.2% of the R249-billion spent by the government on basic education. In his words, the philanthropic sector is a very, very, small player when considering total expenditure on education. Spaull contends that the only way in which philanthropy can contribute meaningfully to educational improvement for the country is by influencing how the government budget is spent. And he suggests that the way to do this is to trial scalable cost-effective and independently evaluated interventions to raise reading outcomes and improve initial teacher training.  That requires the philanthropy sector to learn from the best available research about ‘what works’ and to undertake independent evaluations to determine whether or not their interventions do actually  work.

That resonates with the approach of the Blue Sky Foundation. Our mission is to unlock the financial and other resources which will allow community organisations to implement and sustain projects having an immediate, real and meaningful impact on the lives of all children in their communities ( Ensuring that every child in these communities has access to good quality early childhood development is a cornerstone of that approach.