“Every child must read” – my M&G article


(The article below appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 21st of November 2014 – available on the M&G website here).

If you’re reading this sentence it means that somewhere, somehow, you learnt to read. Bravo! You acquired the magical skill of translating scribbles into language and making meaning from the print symbols on the pages and screens that permeate our lives.

It really is quite remarkable that a few scrawls on a page can make us weep with joy or seethe with rage as we engage with the heroes, villains and ideas of bygone or future eras. Imagine what your life would be like if you could not read. Imagine what school would have been like if you couldn’t read.

And yet, unfortunately, this is not an imaginary experience for thousands of South African children. It is their daily, lived experience. Constantly struggling to understand the words on a page, let alone deciphering the deeper meaning behind these funny dots and dashes. And this is not their fault.

The human brain is hard-wired to acquire language and almost all children can learn to read in just a few years if provided with the right teaching, resources and encouragement. However, many South African children do not attend schools where these necessary conditions are present. A number of South African studies have revealed that children who cannot read and write properly by grade four end up playing catch-up for the rest of their school days. These children never quite grasp what is expected from them, even as they are told they are failing and must try harder.

Let me explain some of the recent research findings on this very important topic.
In 2011 South Africa participated in an international study called PrePirls (pre-progress in international reading literacy study), which is aimed at assessing the reading ability of grade four children. The study examined a nationally representative sample of 341 primary schools drawn from across the country.

The reason for choosing to assess grade four is not arbitrary, but rooted in an understanding of when and how children learn to read.  The first three years of schooling are regarded as the “learning to read” phase, when children acquire the ability to decode text and convert print symbols into language.  In grade four they enter the “reading to learn” phase as they start acquiring new information through the skill of reading.

Children who cannot read properly by grade four are severely disadvantaged, because they cannot read fluently or read for meaning, and therefore don’t benefit much from higher grades. This places them in perpetual catch-up mode until they begin to approach matric and drop out of school in grades 10 and 11, as 50% of South African students do. Unfortunately the results of PrePirls are truly sobering.

If one looks at the reading achievement of these schools and splits the 341 schools into the better performing half (169 schools) and the worse performing half (172 schools) of the sample, the results speak for themselves. In the top half of schools, 10% of students were completely illiterate. That is to say that they could not locate and retrieve an explicitly stated detail in a short and simple text. These children cannot read at all.

In the bottom half of schools, an unbelievable 51% of students were completely illiterate! After four years of formal, full-time schooling, every second child in these 172 schools was completely illiterate. These 172 schools are statistically representative of half of South African primary schools. (These tests were done in the language that they had been learning in during grades one to three — an African language for most children, before switching to English in grade four).

These children who don’t learn how to read properly are then promoted to the next grade, but never manage to get their heads above water for the rest of their school days.

What to do?

Firstly we have to get the basics right in the Foundation Phase (grade one to three). We need a national reading campaign where all stakeholders (parents, teachers, principals, government officials, the minister, the president) all rally behind this goal: “Every child must read and write by the end of grade three.”

This is the very same goal that Brazil used as the core goal for primary schooling — with much success. One prominent South African researcher, Elizabeth Pretorius, has identified four necessary criteria to ensure all children learn to read:

(1) Teachers need to understand when and how children acquire reading and comprehension skills, as well as understand how to teach reading;

(2) Children need easy access to interesting books in their own language and in English;

(3) Children need to be constantly motivated to read, with reading seen as a pleasurable activity by students and teachers, and

(4) Children need to be given plenty of opportunities to read in and outside of the classroom.

Sadly there is currently no systematic evidence about which of the many interventions currently being implemented in South Africa actually work, and if they do work, which is best. It is of fundamental importance that a national reading strategy be based on scientific evidence regarding what most improves the acquisition of reading in South African schools.

If we do not get reading right in grades one to three, any intervention later in the system will only have a small impact on learning, and consequently the life chances of the poor.  The later in life we attempt to repair early learning deficits, the costlier the remediation becomes. We simply must ensure that every child timeously acquires that magical skill of translating scribbles into language. Our education system depends on it.

For an excellent (and much more detailed) article on reading see Elizabeth Pretorius’ original article here

Links I liked…


  • Excellent 2013 lecture by Michael Fullan on “Schools in need of re-education
  • Her Majesty Susan Sontag talks to us mere mortals about “Modern Literacy
  • The HSRC are looking for a post-doc student in their “Education and Skills Development” portfolio (deadline 17 Nov) – for more details see here.
  • What a tattoo looks like while it’s happening (semi-cringey) – IFL Science
  • Great collection of modern architecture photos
  •  “Writing and style guide for university papers and assignments” – from the University of Ottawa
  • If you want to get mad read this GroundUp article about Marikana “Lonmin’s Broken Promises
  • Shocking new report by Oxfam (“Even it up“) on global inequality and what needs to be done.
  • Quote of the week: “It is worth noting that American students have never received high scores on international tests. On the first such test, a test of mathematics in 1964, senior year students in the US scored last of twelve nations, and eighth-grade students scored next to last. But in the following fifty years, the US outperformed the other eleven nations by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions. This raises the question of whether the scores of fifteen-year-old students on international tests predict anything of importance or whether they reflect that our students lack motivation to do their best when taking a test that doesn’t count toward their grade or graduation.” – Diane Ravitch in the NYRB “The myth of Chinese Super Schools” (I’ve received great feedback from friends and colleagues – many challenging Ravitch’s simplistic generalizations – but I still think the article is quite thought-provoking).

The best SA research article I’ve read this year


This article by Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA) is easily one of the best academic articles I’ve read this year! I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in (1) reading/literacy, (2) the education crisis in SA, or (3) how to get out of the mess we are currently in, should read this article!

Pretorius, E. 2014. Supporting transition or playing catch-up in Grade 4? Implications for standards in education and training. Perspectives in Education. 32 (1), pp 51-76.


This paper describes an intervention programme that was originally intended to support transition to English as language of learning and teaching (LoLT) in Grade 4 in a township school, using a pre- and post-test design. Because the pre-tests revealed very poor literacy levels in both Zulu home language and English, the intervention programme was modified in an attempt to fast-track the learners to literacy levels more appropriate to their grade. This paper outlines the intervention, presents the pre- and post-test results of the English literacy assessments, reflects on the effects of the intervention, and briefly considers some of the reasons for the initial poor literacy performance. Finally, a model for literacy development in high-poverty contexts is proposed to minimise the need to play catch-up in the Intermediate Phase.

JPAL Executive Education Course (on RCT evaluations)

After submitting my PhD a few weeks ago I am slowly getting back into the swing of things. That includes blogging and the Q&A series. But for now I thought I would pass on this advert for JPAL’s latest Executive Education Course. JPAL is a great organization and I would highly recommend this course to those professionals who wants to get a better understanding of how randomised control trails work.
J-PAL Africa Executive Education Course
Location: School of Economics, University of Cape Town
Course Dates: 19-23 January 2015
Application Deadline: 4 November 2014
We are pleased to invite you to apply to the upcoming J-PAL Executive Education course in Evaluating Social Programmes, which will provide you with a thorough understanding of randomised evaluations. Our Executive Education courses are valued by people from a variety of backgrounds: managers and researchers from international development organizations, governments, as well as trained economists looking to retool. If you have colleagues or friends who may be interested in applying to this course, we encourage you to pass this invitation on to them as well.
The course is a 5-day, full-time course and will run from the 19 – 23 January 2015 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The purpose of the course is to provide participants with a thorough understanding of why and how to use randomisation in an impact evaluation and to provide pragmatic step-by-step training for conducting their own randomised evaluation. J-PAL affiliates with extensive experience in using randomised impact evaluations to test the effectiveness of social programmes, in Africa and globally, will teach the course.
You may view more information about the course content and fees here. You can also access the course applications through that website, or by following this link here. The deadline for applications is 4 November 2014. We receive far more applications to the course than we can accommodate, and we encourage applicants to apply early. We will notify participants of whether their application has been accepted by November 7th, after which payment of the course fee (see course fees here) will need to be made by 2 December, before a place on the course can be confirmed.  Once acceptance is confirmed, participants are responsible for making their own travel and accommodation arrangements.
We hope to receive your application for the course soon. Do let us know if you have questions about the course. 
Warm regards,
Laura Poswell
J-PAL Africa Executive Director

Big Brother is watching (Links I liked)


  • Earth meet Big Brother, Big Brother – Earth. WIRED’s latest article on Edward Snowden is profoundly shocking. The NSA has the potential to track “everyone” in a city using the MAC address from cellphones, it “accidentally” sunk the Internet in Syria while trying to spy on Syrian civilians, and frequently passes unredacted data on to Israel about Palestinian American citizens. WTF.
  • The non-monetary benefits of learning may be difficult to measure, but they shape and determine what we recognize to be the quality of our life” – from “Why academic achievement matters (via Harry Patrinos).
  • After watching the trailer to Boyhood I’ve fallen in love with this song by Family of the Year.
  • Henry Miller on friendship – worth reading (thanks Clint Clark)
  • Next year’s IEA conference is happening in Cape Town (22-23 June 2015). For those who are doing work on IEA data (PIRLS/TIMSS) the deadline for submission is 1 December 2014.
  • The Free State Department of Basic Education is clearly trying to game the ANAs – see this article. We really need to be thinking about the potential unintended consequences of the ANAs. I think the ANAs are a positive development in the SA education system, but we need to be paying closer attention to the potential unintended consequences of the ANAs and how we can minimize these unintended consequences. For one thing, the ANAs are not ready to be used as an accurate indicator of student or school performance across the grades or over time. 
  • In case you were wondering what your skin looks like with and without sunscreen, see here. *will never not wear sunscreen again, or use double negatives*
  • The impact of national and international assessment programmes on education policy, particularly policies regarding resource allocation and teaching and learning practices in developing countries” – Systematic review of the evidence by ACER 2014

There’s STILL madness in WEF rankings


I don’t usually repost articles that I’ve written in the past but given that the World Economic Forum has recently released it’s 2014/15 Global Competitiveness report I thought it makes sense. The article below first appeared in the M&G on the 13th of June. If you’re part of the media and want to quote me on something RE the 2014/15 rankings you can use any of the following:

  • “These results are completely and utterly preposterous. Of course South Africa’s education system is in crisis and performing worse than other middle-income (and some low-income) countries) but it definitely isn’t the worst in the world.”
  • “The methods used to calculate these education rankings are subjective, unscientific, unreliable and lack any form of technical credibility or cross-national comparability.”
  • “The mistakes in the WEF’s methodology are so egregious that one needs only look at the list of countries and their respective rankings to appreciate how ridiculous they really are – failed states rank above modernising middle-income countries. How on earth do Japan and Cote d’Ivoire have the same ranking for the quality of their maths and science instruction? This is not science, this is an unscientific opinion survey”
  • “The WEF has seriously undermined its own technical credibility by reporting these ridiculous education rankings. Until it rectifies its methodology, no one should take the rankings seriously.”


In the past two weeks the South African media has had a field day lamenting the state of maths and science education in the country. This is because the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently ranked South Africa 148th (out of 148 countries) on the quality of its maths and science education.

Let me cut to the chase and say, unequivocally, that the methods used to calculate these education rankings are subjective, unscientific, unreliable and lack any form of technical credibility or cross-national comparability. I am not disputing that South Africa’s schooling system is currently in crisis (it is), or that South Africa performs extremely weakly relative to other low- and middle-income countries (it does). What I am disputing is that these “rankings” should be taken seriously by anyone or used as evidence of deterioration (they shouldn’t).

The mistakes in the WEF’s methodology are so egregious that one needs only look at the list of countries and their respective rankings to appreciate how ridiculous they really are. How is it possible that the quality of maths and science education in failed states such as Chad (ranked 127th on the WEF list), Liberia (125th) and Haiti (120th) is better than modernising middle-income countries such as Brazil (136th) and Mexico (131st)? How do countries such as Madagascar (82nd) and Zambia (76th) outrank countries such as Israel (78th), Spain (88th) and Turkey (101st)?

Although these preposterous rankings sound like an April Fool’s joke gone wrong, they are reported without qualm on page 287 of the WEF Information Technology Report 2014. Even a cursory analysis of the faulty ranking methodology the WEF employed shows how it is possible to arrive at these outlandish “rankings.” The WEF asked between 30 and 100 business executives in each country to answer questions (relating only to their own country), using a scale of one to seven to record their perceptions, with one representing the worst possible situation and seven the best possible situation.

The question relating to maths and science education was phrased as follows: “In your country, how would you assess the quality of maths and science education in schools?” with “one” being “extremely poor – among the worst in the world”, and “seven” being “excellent – among the best in the world”.

In South Africa, 47 business executives were surveyed for these rankings. On the question relating to maths and science, the average score among these 47 executives was 1.9, indicating that the vast majority of these South African business executives believed that the quality of maths and science education in the country was “among the worst in the world.” Yet this is really just a measure of the perceptions of these 47 businessmen, as the department of basic education has correctly pointed out.

By contrast, when the 55 Malawian and 85 Zambian business executives were surveyed, they were more optimistic about the maths and science education provided to students in their countries, yielding average scores of 3.2 and four respectively.

This explains why Malawi ranks 113th and Zambia ranks 76th whereas South Africa ranks 148th. Yet we know from objective cross-national standardised testing in the region that Zambia and Malawi are two of the few countries that South Africa actually does outperform.

Clearly the ratings given by these business executives are subjective and dependent on their particular mental reference points, which obviously differ by country. These 47 South African executives were not asked to rank South Africa relative to other specific countries – such as Madagascar, Malawi or Mali – only relative to “the world”.

Although the perceptions of business executives are important in their own right, it is ludicrous to use these within-country perceptions to rank “the quality of maths and science education” between countries; particularly when we have objectively verifiable, cross-nationally comparable scientific evidence for maths and science performance for at least 113 countries.

Looking at South Africa specifically, we participate in two major cross-national standardised testing systems that aim to compare the mathematics and science performance of South African students with that of students in other countries. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) tests grade eight students from middle- and high-income countries, and the Southern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq) study tests grade six students from 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Worse than South Africa
Of the countries participating in Sacmeq, South Africa came 8th in maths, behind much poorer countries such as Kenya (2nd), Swaziland (5th) and Tanzania (3rd), but ahead of Mozambique (10th), Namibia (13th), Zambia (14th) and Malawi (15th). Although this situation is no cause for celebration, it does show that these countries – which outrank South Africa in the WEF rankings – are in fact doing worse than South Africa in reality.

If we look beyond Africa to the Timss rankings, South Africa performs abysmally. Of the 42 countries that participated from around the world (including 21 developing countries), South Africa came joint last with Honduras in 2011. This should shock us to the core. But it does not mean that we have the worst education system in the world. Rather, we have the worst education system of those 42 countries that take part in these assessments.

There is a big difference. Only 21 developing countries took part in these assessments, but there are around 115 developing countries in the WEF tables. The fact that Mali, Madagascar, Liberia and Haiti (for example) do not take part in these assessments means that business executives in these countries have very little reliable information on the quality of education in their countries.

In South Africa the basic education department has wisely chosen to take part in these assessments so that we have reliable information on the performance of our education system, however low that performance might be.

Continuing participation
This is one thing that the department should be commended for –that is, for continuing to participate in these assessments, which provide valuable information, despite being lambasted by their findings.

Perhaps the best example of how flawed the WEF methodology is is illustrated by comparing Indonesia and Japan on the WEF rankings and on the well-respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings, which also tests math and science, as does Timss.

In the WEF rankings, executives in Indonesia and Japan both gave an average score of 4.7 for the quality of maths and science education in their respective countries. This placed Japan 34th and Indonesia 35th of the 148 countries. Yet, of the 65 countries participating in the 2012 round of the Pisa maths and science testing, Japan came 7th (out of 65) and Indonesia came 64th. Go figure.

Although there are some early signs of improvement in the South African education system, we know that things remain dire. South African students perform worse than all middle-income countries that participate in assessments, and even worse than some low-income African countries.

But to claim that South Africa has the worst quality of maths and science education in the world, and to use executives’ perceptions over scientific evidence to do so, is irrational and irresponsible.

The WEF has seriously undermined its own technical credibility by reporting these ridiculous education rankings. Until it rectifies its methodology, no one should take the rankings seriously.

My new PLoS ONE article on HIV discrimination among Gr6 students in 9 African countries


I recently co-authored an article with Brendan Maughan-Brown (SALDRU) on HIV-related discrimination among grade 6 students in 9 Southern African countries. The high levels of reported discrimination are truly sobering and highlight the need to address ignorance and the widespread marginalisation of children living with HIV.


Maughan-Brown, B. and Spaull, N. 2014. HIV-Related Discrimination among Grade 6 students in Nine Southern African Countries. PLoS ONE 9(8): e102981. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102981



HIV-related stigmatisation and discrimination by young children towards their peers have important consequences at the individual level and for our response to the epidemic, yet research on this area is limited.


We used nationally representative data to examine discrimination of HIV-positive children by grade six students (n = 39,664) across nine countries in Southern Africa: Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Descriptive statistics are used to compare discrimination by country, gender, geographic location and socioeconomic status. Multivariate logistic regression is employed to assess potential determinants of discrimination.


The levels and determinants of discrimination varied significantly between the nine countries. While one in ten students in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa and Swaziland would “avoid or shun” an HIV positive friend, the proportions in Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe were twice as high (approximately 20%). A large proportion of students believed that HIV positive children should not be allowed to continue to attend school, particularly in Zambia (33%), Lesotho (37%) and Zimbabwe (42%). The corresponding figures for Malawi and Swaziland were significantly lower at 13% and 12% respectively. Small differences were found by gender. Children from rural areas and poorer schools were much more likely to discriminate than those from urban areas and wealthier schools. Importantly, we identified factors consistently associated with discrimination across the region: students with greater exposure to HIV information, better general HIV knowledge and fewer misconceptions about transmission of HIV via casual contact were less likely to report discrimination.


Our study points toward the need for early interventions (grade six or before) to reduce stigma and discrimination among children, especially in schools situated in rural areas and poorer communities. In particular, interventions should focus on correcting misconceptions that HIV can be transmitted via casual contact.


Full paper here.