Developing an “access-to-learning” statistic: Combining access & quality in Sub-Saharan Africa


I’m currently in Washington D.C. for the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference of 2015. Although it was -17′ C when I landed the weather has actually been lovely and DC seems like a lovely city to live in.

On Monday I presented two papers that I co-authored with Stephen Taylor on creating a composite measure of access and quality for 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The presentation was very well received by the other delegates and a number of them have since commented on the importance of this research given where we are at cusp of the next set of post-MDG goal-setting, the “Sustainable Development Goals.” Personally I believe this is the most important research I’ve done to date, and it’s also the research of which I am most proud.

For those who would like to read the two papers I have included links below, and the PowerPoint slides can be found here. Both Stephen and I are trying to disseminate this research so if you know of anyone who might be interested in it please do forward it along to them. As always, comments and questions welcome.

Spaull, N., & Taylor, S., (2015). Access to what? Creating a composite measure of educational quantity and educational quality for 11 African countries. Comparative Education Review. Vol. 58, No. 1. (WP here).


The aim of the current study is to create a composite statistic of educational quantity and educational quality by combining household data (Demographic and Health Survey) on grade completion and survey data (Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality) on cognitive outcomes for 11 African countries: Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Doing so overcomes the limitations of earlier studies that fo- cused solely on either quantity or quality. We term the new statistic “access to literacy” and “access to numeracy” and report it by gender and wealth. This new measure combines both quantity and quality and consequently places educational outcomes at the center of the discourse.

Taylor, S., & Spaull, N., (2015) Measuring access to learning over a period of increased access to schooling: The case of Southern and Eastern Africa since 2000. International Journal of Educational Development . Vol. 41 (March) pp47-59 (WP here).


This paper examines the extent to which increased access to primary schooling in ten Southern and East African countries between 2000 and 2007 was also accompanied by increased access to actual learning. We develop a measure of access to learning that combines data on education access and learning achievement to measure the proportions of children in the population (including those enrolled and not enrolled) that reach particular thresholds of literacy and numeracy. In all countries there was greater access to learning in 2007 than in 2000. These improvements in access to learning especially benefited girls and children from poor households.

Prize-giving speech at Durban Girls High School

On Friday the 27th of March I gave the prize-giving speech at Durban Girls High School. A few people have asked me for the text so I’ve included the transcript below…



Good morning prize-winners and parents, teachers and other guests. Firstly, congratulations on being the top-achievers at one of South Africa’s best schools. This is no small feat. While this is of course in part due to your own hard work and determination, I’m sure you will agree that part of your success is due to your parents and teachers. Girls, please join me and give them both a big round of applause.

Today I want to speak to you about the Future and about “Unfinished Business”; the unfinished business of gender equality around the world, and the unfinished business of South Africa.

 Let me start with talking briefly about the ongoing struggle for gender equality around the world. When we look across the countries of the world we see that there are more girls in school than ever before in human history. Women are paid more than at any time in the past and there are also more women in leadership positions. Thankfully the voices and stories of women are starting to receive equal treatment to those of men, and most importantly, these stories are being told by women themselves and not by men on their behalf. Yet it is difficult to celebrate these achievements when women still make up the majority of the world’s unfed, unhealthy, unschooled and unpaid. In every country around the world women carry the lion’s share of the child-caring responsibility. While this is of course an immense privilege, it is one that should be chosen and not assumed. I trust that if and when you have children you will talk about this frankly with your partners – as a conversation among equals, not a forgone conclusion.

 Throughout the world women’s interests are underrepresented in society. As in all things it helps to look at those who are in the corridors of power around the world.

  • Of the 195 independent countries in the world, less than 10% are led by women.
  • Women hold just 20 percent of the seats in parliaments globally. So for every female parliamentarian there are 4 male parliamentarians.
  • Less than 5% of the FORTUNE 500 companies have female CEOs.

 When we hear stats like this we need to ask how it is that women’s interests can be properly represented when there are so few women in positions of power? We still have ridiculous situations where national panels are deciding on women’s reproductive rights and access to contraception and the entire panel is made up of men?! To decide on issues relating to women’s bodies and women’s rights?! This is insane.

It is for this reason that I agree with Hillary Clinton when she says that achieving equality for women and girls is “the great unfinished business of the 21st century.”

The benefits of including women and embracing gender equality around the world are indisputable. Research is now beginning to confirm what we have known all along – that women are more altruistic than men in their allocation of resources.  I am particularly fond of one recent study in India that showed conclusively that when women are put in charge of a village council they allocate more money to drinking water, roads and welfare programs than men in similar positions. As the researchers from Yale and MIT note “Overall, these results indicate that a politician’s gender…does influence policy decisions.”

 Equalising opportunity between men and women is not only good for women, it is also good for men. We all benefit when our relative strengths are allowed to flourish unhindered. So this is the first point of my speech – gender equality is the great unfinished business of the 21st century and it turns to you and your futures to help finish it.

The second thing I want to talk to you about is the future, but before I do I want to tell you a little bit about your school. As I am sure you already know Durban Girls High School is one of the best performing schools in this province – you regularly achieve a 100% matric pass rate and a 97% bachelor pass rate. But I thought I would go and look at the data and see just how well you do in comparison to all the other public schools in the entire country. If we look at bachelor pass rates Girls High is not only in the top 1% of schools in South Africa, it is in the top 0.5% of schools. And if we only look at the 420 “large” schools – where there are more than 200 matriculants – Girls High comes second in the entire country. Congratulations!

This is an important point to which I will return later – that you are immensely privileged to be attending this school. Your years at Girls High are putting you on firm ground as you turn to face the future. And this is a good thing because if we are honest, we have no idea what the future holds for you. Karl Fisch summarizes this wonderfully when he says that

 “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

 When this is the case you to learn to become comfortable with uncertainty and constant change. Make peace with the fact that your career is likely to change 4 or 5 times in the future and that you will need to relearn and reskill a number of times in your life. As Tofler says:


 I would now like to move a little closer to home and focus on the role of women in South Africa and talk about unfinished business here in our own beautiful country.

We have all heard about the amazing men that ushered in our South African miracle – a peaceful transition to democracy. Men like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. But we have heard much less about people like Rahima Moosa, Lillian Ngoyi, and Helen Suzman.

 The women of South Africa played an incredible and often unacknowledged role in resisting and overturning apartheid. As early as 1912 Indian women in South Africa encouraged Black and Indian miners in Newcastle to strike against starvation wages, organising the first mass passive resistance campaign in the country.

 These impressive feats are often glossed over as we focus on male protagonists like Sisulu or Biko. Looking more broadly, it is important to remember that practically all of recorded human history was written by chauvinist men, side-lining the central role that women have played in nurturing and shaping the history of humanity. To give a gendered spin on Churchill’s famous quote “History is written by the victors” – or in this case, by men.


 One of the best examples of women’s involvement in resisting apartheid is the famous Women’s March which happened on the 9th of August in 1956 – the day we now commemorate with “Women’s Day”. 20,000 women marched to the seat of apartheid power – the Union Buildings in Pretoria – and presented a petition to Prime Minister Stijdom against the carrying of passes by women. This was one of the most impressive protests against the dreaded pass laws that were so characteristic of the apartheid state.

 To commemorate the occasion activists composed the now historic slogan “Now you have touched the women, You have struck a rock.” Or in it’s more recent version “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.”

 Let me quote one historian and paint a picture of this momentous day:

 “Many of the African women wore traditional dress. Others wore the Congress colours of green, black and gold. Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers’ children along with them. Throughout the demonstration the huge crowds displayed a discipline and dignity that was deeply impressive.”

 Later, at Lillian Ngoyi’s suggestion, the huge crowds stood in absolute silence for a full hour.   Before leaving the women sang ‘Nkosi sikeleli Afrika” and left with the dignity and defiance with which they came.

 Indeed, you strike a woman, you strike a rock!

 But now you might be asking “What does this have to do with me?” That was 1956, this is 2015! True. All of you were born in the democratic era of South Africa – the so-called “Born Frees.” (Personally I think this is quite a cheesy name with overtones of Bruce Springsteen, but whatever we’ll go with it). For those sitting in this hall, you live in a very different South Africa to that of the women in that Momen’s March in 1956. Whether black or white, male or female, gay or straight you have the exact same rights and privileges enshrined in our constitution.

 As I mentioned earlier almost all of you will go to university and be fortunate enough to pursue your passions and interests wherever they may lead you. But you are the exception. You are the 1%. For most South Africans that is not the case and you can choose to do something about it.

 After 20 years of democratic rule most black children continue to receive an education that condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm, not the exception. This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self- worth.

While I was writing this speech I spent a long time thinking about how to convey the South African reality and eventually settled on two numbers from the research: R25 and R10.

Today, on the 27th of February 2015 half the country lives on less than R25 per day. They are in abject poverty. With less than R25 per day they need to buy food, clothing, shelter, transport and all the other basic necessities needed to live free from deprivation.

Half of South Africa lives on less than R25 a day per person.

The second number is R10. 10million South Africans live on less than R10 per day. While I was writing this speech and thinking about this I just started crying. This level of poverty is what we call “extreme poverty” or “starvation poverty” or “malnourishment poverty”. The reason why this is called “malnourishment poverty” is because with less than R10 per day, you cannot buy the amount of calories needed not to be under-nourished, even if you spent your entire income on food. You would still be undernourished.

10 million South Africans live on less than R10/day. Whenever you see a R10 note remember – 10 million South Africans live on less than R10 a day.

I don’t tell you about these stats to bring a downer to your prize giving. I tell you about them to implore you to do something about it. Whatever your background – rich or poor – you have been given one of the greatest opportunities in life – an excellent education. You will qualify to go to university and allow for the free unfolding of your personality, gifts and talents. As you make your way in the world you will have many choices before you. What do I want to do with my life? Who do I want to be? What should I study?

And I want to suggest to you today that you will only find true meaning in your life when you live it for the benefit of others.

You were not born in a random country at a random time. You were born in South Africa only a few years into democracy. Born into a beautiful country of hope and potential but one that is also still riven with racial tensions and inequality. A country still trying to make peace with itself and with the wrongs of the past. This is the unfinished business of South Africa and it falls to us, the youth of the country to keep fighting. To fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves. For the millions of poor and marginalized South Africans who live on the outskirts of society – unseen and neglected.

I will tell you how we fix this country. It is not by relying on corrupt politicians whose greed and envy cloud their judgment and choices. It is not by bitching and complaining or packing for Perth. It is not by building higher walls or buying bigger cars. The way we will fix this country is when competent, ethical and ambitious young men and women decide to be part of the solution at whatever personal or professional cost. When passionate people like you and me decide that we want to work in government schools and public hospitals not because it is our last resort but because it is our first responsibility – to use the opportunities we have received for the benefit of others.

So, in closing, it is my hope today, that sitting in this hall, there are those who will use their talents, energies and ambitions to finish the unfinished business of South Africa. That here amongst us are some Radima Moosa’s or Helen Suzman’s or Lillian Ngoyi’s, who can speak truth to power. Who can fight for the marginalised and oppressed. And who can show to all the world that when you strike a woman you strike a rock.

 Thank you.


In writing this speech I have taken statistics and phrases from a variety of different places including Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, Angus Deaton’s “The Great Escape”, a number of articles on SA History online, and various speeches of Hillary Clinton.

“Some Children Are More Equal Than Others” [moving documentary on SA Educ]

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.07.21 AM

Today Stefan Gottfried released his short documentary on education in South Africa, aptly named “Some Children Are More Equal Than Others.” I came into contact with Stefan last year when he was working with the Legal Resources Centre. It happened to be at the same time I was visiting mud-schools in the Eastern Cape late last year (blog post here). The documentary was produced on a shoestring budget but clearly conveys the tragedy and anguish of hundreds of thousands of parents in South Africa. The motif that runs through much of the documentary is that the low quality of education offered to the majority of South Africa’s children becomes a poverty trap and prevents any form of social mobility. It reminded me of something I wrote 2 years ago:

“While the low-level equilibrium that South Africa finds itself in has its roots in the apartheid regime of institutionalised inequality, this fact does not absolve the current administration from its responsibility to provide a quality education to every South African child. After 19 years of democratic rule most black children continue to receive an education which condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm, not the exception. This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self- worth. In short, poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social station of their parents, irrespective of their motivation or ability. Until such a time as the Department of Basic Education and the ruling administration are willing to seriously address the underlying issues in South African education, at whatever political or economic cost, the existing patterns of underperformance and inequality will remain unabated” (from here).

Although I see the tragic education stats on a daily basis, it really hits home when you see the pain and anguish of black parents who see and understand that education is the route out of poverty for their kids and are trying their hardest to get their children into “good” schools but failing at every turn. Watch the documentary and ask yourself “What can I do to change this tragic, dangerous and deeply unfair situation?”

Links I liked…


  • A book on education in Gauteng 1994-2014 has now been published. I wrote a chapter on standardised assessments. Spaull, N. (2014) Educational outcomes in Gauteng 1995-2011: An overview of provincial performance in standardised assessments, in F Maringe & M Prew (eds), Twenty Years of Education Transformation in Gauteng 1994 to 2014: An Independent Review, African Minds, Somerset West., pp 289-312
  • Free PDF books on race, sexuality, gender and class (really useful resource!)
  • Lifelines for poor children” – Nobel Laureate James Heckman writes an accessible (2013) NYT article on early childhood development. “What’s missing in the current debate over economic inequality is enough serious discussion about investing in effective early childhood development from birth to age 5.”
  • In light of the recent moves by Gauteng Department of Basic Education to introduce “paperless classrooms” we would all do well to read this chapter “Computers in schools: Why governments should do their homework.” But we will go around the mountain one more time and check for ourselves. Because how do you know if it’s a dead-end until you’ve tried it? Well, maybe because everyone else tried to do exactly what we are proposing to do and it didn’t work? If you’re not teaching teachers how to use the tech, budgeting for maintenance and most importantly evaluating the project (to figure out if it’s actually working) then it’s pretty much doomed to fail. As they say in the chapter above “The evidence so far is quite persuasive that programs that overlook teacher training and the development of software may yield low returns” (p169).  I’m all for using tech in meaningful ways but this isn’t that, this is basically “Let them eat iPads.” (also see this NYT article, “Can you have too much tech?“)
  • How Pakistan fails its children” – scathing NYT article (2014) on the state of education in Pakistan and the lack of political will for true reform.
  • The Pursuit of Beauty” – A lovely New Yorker article about a little known Chinese mathematician in the US who solved a pure-math mystery and is now famous. (Thanks Lilli for the link). It’s uplifting to hear that we humans are still making progress and pushing the boundaries of knowledge further and further every year.
  • The HSRC are looking for a Doctoral Research Trainee in Education and Skills Development (deadline for applications 6 Feb 2015). For more details see the advert here.
  • A good friend of mine Shelanna Sturgess has recently started blogging. She’s an art teacher at Durban Girls High School and has a bunch of cool stuff on art and teaching with technology, check out her site here.
  • If you want to know what perverse incentives are then read this Cullen (2003) article “The impact of fiscal incentives on disability rates” – when you give schools extra money for children with disability suddenly the number of children classfied as disabled increases…”My central estimates imply that fiscal incentives can explain nearly 40% of the recent growth in student disability rates in Texas”

Q&A with Andrew Einhorn (Numeric)

andrew einhorn

The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the twenty-second interview in the series. Andrew Einhorn is the founder of Numeric, a South African NGO using Khan Academy to teach mathematics. 

1) Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

I’ve missed a few big opportunities in my life. I was at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook. I can remember one evening considering going round to his dorm to talk about getting involved. Facebook was tiny then; it only had a few thousand members. Still, I thought it was a nice idea and wondered if I could help out. But I was busy with classes and never got around to getting in touch with him. I guess that ship has sailed.

I came back to South Africa in 2007 and got a job with a financial firm. But I had seen the Netflix model in America and wondered if it could be established here. A friend and I looked into it – it just seemed like a no-brainer. But ultimately I was still a little risk averse and couldn’t summon the chutzpah to up and leave my investment analyst position. Another opportunity missed!

A few years later I received an email from a funder querying whether Khan Academy might be used in the South African context. I watched Sal’s TED Talk and saw in it another big opportunity. This time I wasn’t too keen to let it slide. So I started to look for ways to connect this powerful online learning tool with children in townships with a view to strengthening South African maths education. Four years later, my thinking around how to use Khan Academy has changed somewhat, but I’ve never looked back and feel as motivated today (if not more) as the day I started.

2) What does your average week look like?

The truth is my days are rather unglamorous. A lot of my time is spent attending to small details – logistics and people. I have less contact time with kids than I would like, but I am satisfied that my work allows a much larger number of pre-service teachers to get valuable class time with our students. They do a great job. Better than me. My job is to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that our team of programme managers and coaches are well supported. Numeric is fortunate to have a set of supportive and clued-up funders, which means I spend relatively less time canvassing funders and more time on operations, which is a big plus.

3) While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

In terms of maintaining balance and a sense of perspective, Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” is undoubtedly amongst the most influential books I have read. Sam Walton’s “Made in America” is an excellent read, especially if you have an entrepreneurial leaning and are considering doing something that involves scaling. 

4) Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

I’m not too well placed to answer this one, I’m afraid, I am woefully under-read!

5) What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

I’m also not an expert here, but it does surprise me that there isn’t a bigger lobby to up the ante in the teacher-training space.

6) What is the best advice you’ve been given?

One of the most valuable insights I have come across in recent years is a quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And in a recent tweet from Ricky Gervais: “It’s better to create something that others criticise than to create nothing and criticise others. Go create! Have fun :)”

7) If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

Teacher training

Teacher training

Teacher training

8) If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

Setting up bubble tea stalls at farmers’ markets, or otherwise looking for ways to bring Italian cheese-making expertise to South Africa.

9) You founded the organization Numeric in 2011 – can you give us some background information on the organization and discuss its aims, plans and approach?

With the average score on the Grade 9 Annual National Assessment sitting at 10.8% (2014), it has become clear that South African maths education is broken well before children reach Grade 9. This has informed Numeric’s decision to focus on Grades 6 – 8. We currently run after-school maths programmes in 35 partner schools in the Western Cape and Gauteng. We recruit pre-service teachers (mostly bachelor of education students), train them intensively, and then pair them with groups of 22 learners at our partner schools. They then meet with their kids twice a week throughout the school year, and take the children through an intensive maths programme that starts with times tables and builds up through fractions, negative numbers and order of operations.

Numeric is highly quantitative in its approach. All Grade 7s and 8s at our partner schools write a baseline test in January and an endline test in November. We use these tests to measure the improvement in the scores of learners on the Numeric programme over the course of one year, net of the improvement of learners who are not on the programme. We call this measure the “delta”. The tests are created, administered and graded by an independent assessment committee, and to keep things honest, no Numeric staff member or coach has access to the tests before or after the testing. The two key metrics that drive Numeric are the delta and the cost per learner per month (CLM). Our goal is to maximize the delta and to minimse the CLM.

While the main focus of our programmes is to improve the learners’ maths, we are aware that, in the process. our coaches – future maths teachers – improve enormously both in terms of content and confidence. With the average public school teacher teaching over 5,000 kids during their career, any improvement we can bring about pre-service has positive and far-reaching consequences.

10) Three years after founding Numeric I imagine you are in a different space now than you were then, what are the lessons that you have learnt and what advice would you give to yourself 3 years ago?

When I started out, it was my naive hope that technology could be used to educate children in the absence of a (competent) teacher. I would set up computer labs, put in some bandwidth, show the kids Khan Academy, and voila, they would educate themselves!

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

While we continue to be big fans of technology (Khan Academy in particular), we are increasingly convinced that the key to generating results lies in the quality of our coaches/teachers. While at the tertiary level, platforms like Coursera, Udacity and edX have allowed people to learn things fairly independently, we believe that at the primary and secondary school level, particularly in the classroom environment, the human presence is indispensable. The role of our coaches is threefold: To motivate learners, to support them when they are struggling, and (perhaps most importantly) to praise them when they are doing well.

Due to infrastructure limitations in certain areas where we work, nearly half of our programmes run in the absence of Khan Academy. Our observation? The biggest delta is generated by the best coaches, technology or no technology.

11) What is the most frustrating and most rewarding thing about your job? 

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with the leadership and management of our partner schools. There is a lot of negative media around South Africa’s teachers and schools, but the picture I see is quite different. We work with some real superstars both in Johannesburg and Cape Town – principals, teachers, administrators etc. I’d like to take the media to meet them sometime!

I am occasionally frustrated by poor policy decisions, but tend not to lose too much sleep over them as they are outside of my control. And there are good people (like you guys) lobbying to get these issues rectified.

12) What would you say are the three major difficulties faced by civil-society organizations in South Africa?

It concerns me how much time and effort the founders and leaders of many civil-society organisations have to put into funding. Most organisations have fragmented funding bases with tens or even hundreds of contributors. This goes together with a donor mentality that wants to have fingers in as many pies as possible (I will give R10 000 to 10 organisations rather than R100 000 to one). The result is a large amount of administrative and communication work which usually falls to the organisation leadership. This comes at the expense of them innovating, improving and driving change. I understand that organisations mitigate risk by having a diversified funding base, but a lot of time and energy is spent dressing up social initiatives so that they can be sold to funders, rather than focusing on the problems themselves.

13) What would you most like to see change in the South African education system?

I’d like to see sensible legislation passed that makes space for charter schools. These are schools which receive public funding but operate independently of the established public school system. There are many people chomping at the bit to open and run good public schools with the government’s assistance. I think providing space for them to do so would bring a lot of talent into South African education and I suspect the government would ultimately get kudos for the improved educational outcomes.

I would also like to see sensible legislation passed that allows for independent teacher-training institutions to be opened. At present, the universities carry the entire burden of teacher training. I think there are lots of talented people outside of universities who would relish the opportunity to open and run small, high-impact teacher training institutes. The effect of such institutes, in my view, would be substantial.

Finally, I’d like to see a PR campaign that brings more talented matriculants into bachelor of education (or teacher training) programmes. As the famous American engineer Lee Iacocca once said: “In any rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest would make do with something else.” I have sat in too many interviews with prospective pre-service teachers where they explain to me that the bachelor of education was their second choice or their fall-back option. This mentality needs to change. There are few professions that compare in importance with that of teaching and it’s time we communicate this to young South Africans and bring our best into the teaching profession.


Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula EnsorCarol Macdonald and Jill Adler.

Curro private school assigns kids to classes based on race. WTF?!


It would seem that as far as education is concerned 2015 is not off to a good start. First we had the MEC for education in KZN explaining that her “visions of an ideal education system” include 18th century pseudo-science, namely streaming 6 year old children based on the size and shape of their skulls (phrenology) and the style of their handwriting (graphology). She has subsequently apologized to “everyone who felt offended” but did not retract the statement. Now this week Eyewitness News reports that a private school in Pretoria – Curro Roodeplaat – is assigning children to classes based on race?! They report that a group of 30 parents have signed a petition demanding an explanation from the school and the company. The explanation given by the company (Curro is one of the few for-profit private school chains in the country) was equally dumb-founding.  Curro Holdings’ regional manager Andre Pollard explained their rationale as follows:

“It’s not because we would like to segregate the whites, it’s just because of friends. Children are able to make friends with children of their culture.”

This sounds like a social/friendship-based version of ‘separate development.’ Fifty-two years ago the Bantu Education Act was made into law, segregating children based on the colour of their skin. Still today we are dealing with the aftermath of that one piece of legislation. By conflating education and subjugation it transformed our schools from sites of learning to sites of activism and resistance. It destroyed the culture of teaching and learning and created a lingering fear of education as an instrument of political subjugation.

With a history such as ours how can a school possibly argue that separating children based on race or ‘culture’ is necessary?! The sheer nerve that their regional manager can justify this racial segregation saying that children find it easier to make friends with children of their own culture is astounding and shameful. This is not the first time I have heard about racial discrimination in Pretoria’s Curro schools, but it is the first time I have seen it reported in the media. Currently there are 43 Curro schools across the country raising revenue of over R400 million in 2014. The company recently invested R1,5 billion in expanding their facilities with an aim of reaching 80 schools by 2020.  Only 4% of South African students attend Independent (i.e. non-public) schools but the vast majority of those are not-for-profit schools with about 0,4% attending for-profit schools like Curro.

While we might be tempted to brush this off as an isolated instance at a single Curro school, we need to ask why this behaviour is seen as acceptable by their regional manager? Curro needs to unequivocally condemn these practices and ensure that they are not practiced at any of their other schools. Looking at the speeches and policies at the time of our transition one can clearly see that education was (and is) seen as one of the most promising channels of integration, nation-building and transformation. The actions of this school show utter contempt for the democratic project in South Africa. There are many amazing Independent schools in this country who offer high quality education in a socially inclusive and culturally sensitive way. It would seem that Curro Roodeplaat is not one of them.

The ideal school system to get one’s head around [my Sunday Times article]


[This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 25th of January 2015, it is also available online on Daily Maverick]
Earlier this month the MEC for Basic Education in KwaZulu-Natal, Ms Nelisiwe Peggy Nkonyeni, announced the provincial results of the 2014 matric class. Reading through her speech, it was difficult to know whether to laugh, cry or scream, and in the end one could but shake one’s head in disbelief.

After re-reading the speech, and checking online that this wasn’t in fact a hoax, one could only settle on anger and outrage. Reading through the concluding remarks of Nkonyeni’s speech, it is not hard to see why.

“As I conclude, I revisit the thoughts that guide my innermost conscience in the execution of my responsibilities. Visions of an ideal education system dominate my thinking. In the realm of my thought world, I wish […] That our system could have graphologists who would analyse the uniqueness of each child’s handwriting and channel them accordingly […] That philosophy could be a subject offered at a basic education level so that the system could produce critical thinkers; that chess lessons could be offered to all mathematics learners in order to improve their mathematical schools; and that our system could train and produce phrenologists who would study the shape of a child’s head at Grade R so that we channel the children accordingly”

(MEC Nkonyeni, 7 Jan 2015).

I’m sorry, but you really cannot make this kind of stuff up. Essentially, we can summarise the above and say that the four things that “dominate” the thinking of the KZN MEC for Basic Education are graphology, philosophy, phrenology and chess. Given that there is some international research showing that chess and philosophy can have a positive impact on educational achievement, I will put those two aside for now and discuss the other two issues. This is not to say that I see chess and philosophy as solutions to our education crisis (I don’t), but only that the other two – phrenology and graphology – are so outlandishly ridiculous and unscientific that I do not want to lend them credibility by association.

To be clear, phrenology aims to make judgements about a person’s character and mental capacity based on the structure of their skull, while graphology aims to make similar judgements by analysing the physical characteristics and patterns of their handwriting. Both of these fields are generally considered pseudo-science, since they have no scientific evidence base whatsoever, and have been debunked for over 100 years already.

The fact that MEC Nkonyeni uses these fringe theories to “guide her innermost conscience” and is on record stating that they dominate her “vision of an ideal education system” is deeply problematic. We are talking about the most basic possible level of scientific literacy. To quote one definition of scientific literacy, it refers to “distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs such as those found in astrology, alchemy, medical quackery and the occult”. If we are willing to stream our children in Grade R based on phrenology and graphology, why not horoscopes and palm readings?

One might be tempted to brush off these statements as harmless rhetoric from a left-field thinker and that these beliefs couldn’t possibly make their way into public policy. However, it would be wise to recall what happened in the province under her leadership as MEC for Health a decade ago. Based on her medical beliefs, she refused to give the go-ahead for the use of ARVs in the treatment of HIV-positive individuals, claiming that they were toxic and had bad side effects. Instead, she encouraged HIV-positive people to take uBhejane, an untested herbal concoction. As we all know, anti-retroviral therapy is now the standard of care for those who are HIV positive. The fact that this life-saving treatment was denied to hundreds of thousands of people for many years because of the MEC’s pseudo-scientific beliefs is one of the enduring scars on our country’s medical history. Seen in this light these statements about phrenology and graphology don’t seem so harmless anymore.

These are not just the careless statements of an unimportant politician. Ms Nkonyeni is the MEC for Basic Education in our most populous province. She is directly responsible for the education of every child in KwaZulu-Natal, i.e. 2,901,697 children in 6,151 schools (23% of all South African students, to be specific). She also oversees the largest single provincial budget in the country (R39,4 billion). And she wants to stream your children when they are six years old based on the size and shape of their skulls?! You cannot make this stuff up.

As an educational researcher in South Africa, I am deeply concerned that these are the principles that are guiding the educational leadership of KwaZulu-Natal. We have more than enough problems dealing with the education crisis in our country as it is. Careless statements about pseudo-scientific beliefs undermine the legitimacy of the education department in KZN and cast doubt on the strategic direction of education in the province. MEC Nkonyeni needs to clarify her views on graphology and phrenology and issue a public statement assuring parents that they will not influence education policy in the province in any way, shape or form. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.