The Basic Education Employment Initiative is a viable and promising programme where every rand spent by the state does double the work. Yet there might not be funding in the long run.
With just under half of young South Africans between the ages of 15 and 34 without any learning or earning opportunities, interventions addressing this crisis are often caught between expanding reach and achieving real impact.
The Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI) is a case in point. Born out of the Presidential Employment Stimulus, the BEEI was launched at the end of 2020 and is in its fourth phase. The programme has created more than 700,000 short-term work opportunities for young people across 22,000 schools, with an average spend of about R6-billion per phase.
Run by school management, the bulk of the money has gone straight into the hands of young people for doing a range of tasks including administrative work, gardening, maintenance, data capturing and implementing literacy programmes.
The BEEI supports school improvement on the one hand and creates work for unemployed young people on the other. It thus has an impact on two of South Africa’s toughest problems – poor education and unemployment.
Eight out of 10 pupils in Grade 4 are unable to read for meaning, which makes it very difficult for them to understand and memorise other concepts, leading to high failure and dropout rates. We also know that a whopping 80% of unemployed young people have never had a job in the formal economy, because they lack the marketable skills, qualifications, social capital, connections or opportunities to find their way into a competitive job market.
These problems are so immense and intractable that they will take decades to resolve, but we must get behind national initiatives that have been shown to be workable and promise to make substantial inroads over time.
The BEEI is one of them.
Its implementation has been a feat of coordination and cooperation between the Office of the Presidency and the Department of Basic Education, with additional support from civil society. Recruitment takes place locally through schools, and young people are placed in schools close to where they live.
This is one of the unique aspects of the programme – it reaches rural corners of the country where access to earning opportunities for young people usually involve travelling long distances away from villages and small towns into larger cities, at significant cost.
Implementation of the BEEI has improved with each phase as it has learnt and adapted. We see evidence of this reflected in longer placement times of young recruits, commitment to improved training and a more complete understanding of how young people, as education assistants, add value to overburdened teachers.
This is a viable and promising programme where every rand spent by the state does double the work. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to let slip through our collective fingers, yet there might not be funding for the BEEI in the long run.
While programme designers and implementers are in the process of consolidating their learnings about how to make the BEEI even more effective, the reality is that funding is only secured until March 2024. South Africa is operating under fiscal constraint which makes this programme, and others like it, less appealing as an expenditure item in future.
While it is too early to see the aggregated impact of the BEEI, educators and principals across the country – in economically depressed towns and rural villages – attest to the positive effect it has had in their schools and communities. What are we going to tell people like Terence Adams, principal of Grosvenor Primary in Atlantis, who has been able to improve attendance tracking at his school and support reading?
“I simply can’t imagine not being able to depend on these young people who make the dreams I have for my school a possibility,” Adams told us, adding: “I can count at least six education assistants who have gone on to apply to be educators. These are young people who know what the education system is about and want to remain in it.”
Schools are career incubators where you can learn about finance, human resources and IT, to name a few. While some education assistants remain in the education system after their placement, others choose to use their skills in a new sector or start their own micro-enterprises.
We must be intentional about building a training and support pathway that allows young people to pursue earning opportunities, including in the informal economy and through self-employment.
Young people earning stipends through programmes like the BEEI are able to retain their “side-hustles”, which means they have more money to buy food, pay for transport, and look for permanent work or grow their businesses.
However, many do not have side-hustles and we must maximise these programmes to support young people to secure and maintain an income. To this end, the amount of the stipend must be carefully managed so that it is recognised as the first rung on a ladder to further opportunity and kept comparable to similar first-work stipends.
The continued growth and success of the programme requires a collaborative effort from the government and civil society to ensure quality implementation at scale. Already, there are numerous conversations and partnerships underway to achieve this, but it all depends on long-term budgetary commitment.
Once the door is closed, we revert to working at a small scale, losing the chance to effect population-level impact. It would be very short-sighted to pull the BEEI funding plug now.
Kristal Duncan-Williams is the Project Lead for Youth Capital and Bridget Hannah is an Innovation Director at DGMT.
This op-ed was first published by the Daily Maverick on 01 August 2023.