Adult Basic Education and Training

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Introduction to Adult Basic Education and Training

It is estimated that approximately 3.3 million adults in South Africa remain illiterate, due to past and present inequalities in the South African education system. Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) therefore forms an integral part of the government’s educational redress and transformation initiatives. Given its objectives, the sector is unique in that it occupies a position mid-way between mainstream education and social development, and shares integral characteristics with each.

The National Qualifications Framework (NQF) was introduced in 1995 through the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) Act to facilitate redress and provide access to all learners whose education and training opportunities had been previously hindered. At its core is an attempt to provide lifelong learning opportunities through an integrated system of learning pathways, such that the adult learner can move from illiteracy towards accessing general, further and higher education. To assist the adult learner in this progression, the NQF has also introduced Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), which accredits evidence of previous learning whether acquired formally or informally.

Overview of ABET

ABET was introduced into the NQF in 2000 via the Adult Basic Education and Training Act and consists of a variety of outcomes-based, basic educational programmes and courses that specifically target adult learners.

ABET training consists of four levels, equivalent to Grades R to 9, or General Education and Training (GET). Upon exiting ABET Level 4, learners are granted a qualification of NQF Level 1 and may proceed to FET training or any NQF Level 2 programme.

Unlike GET, however, ABET combines numeracy, literacy and other school-based core learning areas with a vocationally-focused skills training component. This, in an attempt to meet the adult learner’s dual need for both basic education and income generation. The skills training component most commonly takes place through work-place learning, made possible through learnerships offered by the Skills Education Training Authorities (SETAs), and trains learners in specific skills needed for a particular industry or sector.

Apart from skills training, ABET learners also receive general life-skills education which is tailored to respond to the needs of their age group and relevant to the communities in which they live. HIV and Aids training, in particular, features prominently in ABET curricula.


The ABET curriculum consists of school-based academic courses, skills training courses and life-skills courses. ABET learners are required to receive training in:

  • Language, Literacy and Communication
  • Mathematical literacy, Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences
  • Natural Science
  • Arts and culture
  • Life Orientation
  • Technology
  • Human and Social Science
  • Economic and Management Science.

Training may also cover:

  • small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs)
  • tourism
  • agricultural science
  • ancillary health care
  • Aids education
  • entrepreneurship
  • human rights education
  • voter education.


ABET programmes are managed and delivered through a variety of public and private institutions and organizations. Government funded ABET provision takes place mostly through Public Adult Learning Centres (PALCs) established in provinces around the country. These centres make use of facilities from a variety of institutions that are semi-autonomous with their own governance structures, including schools, FET Vocational colleges, and community centres. Government has also funded a number of large-scale adult education and literacy campaigns from which the ABET sector has benefited.

In 2000, the national Department of Education launched the South African National Literacy Initiative (SANLI), as part of Tirisano, the National Education Strategy. SANLI oversees the establishment of a voluntary service to reach the 3.3 million illiterate adults in South Africa and caters for pre-ABET and ABET Level 1 learners.

More recently, government's mass literacy campaign, Kha Ri Gude (Let us learn), offers lessons at 22,000 sites, involving about 328,000 adult learners of various ages. The five-year campaign aims at 4,7-million adults becoming literate by 2012.

Government efforts, however, have not avoided criticism. As Land (2003) notes, the ABET sector is faring far worse than the school education sector. In spite of generous donor funding, the Department of Education has failed to expand adult literacy provision and the SANLI initiative has yet to successfully tackle illiteracy in rural and marginalized communities.

The private and non-profit sector has stepped in to fill the gap left around government efforts, with both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and industry offering ABET provision. Classified as Private Adult Learning Centres, these institutions and organizations receive no mandatory funding from government and are supported through private and public donors and funders. Private Adult Learning Centres offering ABET, however, are still required to register with the Department of Education and comply with their prescribed quality assurance mechanisms and inspections.

Given the strong relationships between literacy, education, empowerment and development, ABET provision has been central in assisting NGO’s and other development organizations in achieving their objectives (see Community and Development). As such, ABET provision through NGOs has a long-standing history in South Africa. As early as 1966, for example, Operation Upgrade was working to teach adults practical skills and health education. Other organizations followed suit and include the Molteno Project and Project Literacy in the 1970’s and many religious organizations, such as Word to Africa, in the 1980’s. For a comprehensive history on the work of some of these organizations and of adult education in South Africa more generally, see Aitchinson’s article, Struggle and Compromise: A History of South African Adult Education 1960 – 2001.

Although ABET is a formalised set of courses and programmes leading to qualifications, it forms part of a broader and more widely encompasing sector of Adult Education (AE). AE refers to any educational effort targeting adult learners, and may be include informal and non-formal initiatives. NGOs and development organizations are highly active in AE – perhaps even more so than in ABET.

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