New report on the impact of grade R on learning (ReSEP)

The post below first appeared on the ReSEP website (see here).


The Department of Policy Monitoring and Evaluation has released a major new study undertaken by ReSEP on the effect the introduction of Grade R in most schools has had on learning outcomes in subsequent grades. It is widely accepted that early learning programmes are the most appropriate interventions to overcome the disadvantages faced by children from poor home backgrounds. But the Report found that

“…the impact of Grade R in South Africa is small and there is virtually no measurable impact for the poorest three school quintiles, while there are some impacts for the higher quintile schools. Thus, instead of reducing inequalities, Grade R further extends the advantage of more affluent schools. Grade R impacts convert to only 12 days of normal learning gains in maths and 50 days in home language (for a school year of 200 days).” (Policy Summary p.3)

In the light of expectations that Grade R can help to overcome the learning deficits of poor children, the results are discouraging. The report concludes that

“The differential impact may imply that impact is associated with capacity, manifested in the supportive framework for Grade R in schools, availability of good teachers and parental support. Low and differentiated learning impact may be due to a wider endemic quality issue in schools rather than specific to Grade R. Quality thus needs attention.” (Executive Summary, p.6)

The authors of the report were Servaas van der Berg, Elizabeth Girdwood, Debra ShepherdChris van Wyk, John Kruger, Janeli ViljoenOlivia Ezeobi and Poppie Ntaka. By creating a major new data set from administrative and test data, the ReSEP researchers were able to statistically estimate the size of the impact of the introduction of Grade R using a fixed effects approach. The report has been praised for its technical quality and the excellent literature review of the evidence on the value of early learning. In response to the report, the Department of Basic Education has held a two day workshop to develop an Improvement Plan that mainly focuses on improving the quality of Grade R.

In response to the release of the Report, Prof. Servaas van der Berg, lead researcher, said he was impressed with the fact that DPME is serious about measuring the impact of government policies and releasing reports such as these. He was equally encouraged by the DBE’s response to address the real reasons behind the capacity constraints that inhibited learning in many poor schools. This is a structural problem that goes deeper than simply the roll-out of Grade R and that needs constant attention.

Summary versions of the Report, the full report, as well as the DBE management response to the Report, can be found on the DPME website.  Alternatively, the same versions of the document can be downloaded here.

It includes the following:

i) the Policy Summary (1 page), Executive Summary (4 pages) and Report Summary (30 pages) as a single document,

ii) the Main Report (88 pages), but this only starts on page 10 and is again preceded by the Policy Summary and the Executive Summary in the same document, and

iii) a Response by DBE Management to the report.

This research was recently featured on IOL News.

- See more at:

Links to all my presentations 2012-2014

keep it open

In the process of cleaning up my website I decided to create a separate tab for presentations (see above) and remembered that I haven’t actually published a post with my presentations in the past. See below for powerpoint presentations that I’ve given at various conferences and classes between 2012 and June 2014. You’ll notice that there is quite a lot of repetition since I often just add, edit and delete slides from previous presentations. Hopefully these are helpful to some of you out there :)

Job Vacancy: Education Innovation Researcher/Programme Manager



In the interest of getting the best people into education I am reposting a job vacancy for a Research/Programme Manager for Education Innovations program at the Bertha Centre at UCT’s Graduate School of Business (see details below). If you have a job-vacancy in education that you’d like to advertise on the blog please send me an email and I’ll post it.


The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business is advertising for a job vacancy (see documents here and here). The role would involve managing (HR, budgets, reporting etc.) the Center for Education Innovations ( team and leading the research into policy, emerging trends and impact within the education sector in Southern Africa. If you know of any potential candidates, please circulate within your network.

Closing date: 14 July 2014

Please see attachments: UCT Application form and Job Advertisement, email any queries and applications to

Many Thanks,


Links I liked…


  • Save yourself a month of therapy and read this article about the critical importance of kindness in relationships (well worth the read) – thanks Helen Blaine.
  • I did two interviews with News24 regarding the WEF education ranking fiasco – (“SA does not rank last for maths and science” and “Don’t accept all facts about SA as truth“, and my M&G article is here)
  • Cool article on “The peril of hipster economics” – “Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighbourhood’s ‘success’ is the removal of its poorest residents. True success lies in giving those residents the services and opportunities they have long been denied.”
  • 2014 Inyathelo report: “Student Access and Success: Issues and Interventions in South African Universities” (PDF)
  • Why should English majors exist? – a lovely 2013 New Yorker article worth reading. An excerpt: “So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization. Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.”
  • Lovely 1990 article by Psacharopoulos titled “Comparative Education: From Theory to Practice, or Are You A: \neo.* or B:\*. ist?” which closes with the line: “Comparative educators of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your labels” #love


Q&A with Percy Moleke


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 sixteenth interview in the series. Percy Moleke is Programme Manager and Coordinator of the Human Capabilities and Social Protection Working Group of the National Planning Commission

1)   In your career, why did you choose to focus on education and social policy and how did you get where you are now?

While studying economics, which has been my favourite subject since Matric many moons ago, the social part made much more sense to me. When I proceeded to university, the social electives were much more attractive, i.e. public sector economics, public finance, labour economics, economics of education were my favourite electives. It is their closeness to reality, and to my personal background that made sense; even econometric analysis related to these subjects made sense. I related to them in many ways and they gave a sense that what I was learning could make a difference. I am mostly attracted by the role of social policy in addressing inequality and particularly looking at the linkages between education and the labour market and understanding their role in addressing inequality. I believe they (education and labour market) are the root cause of inequality (engineered by apartheid) and should thus be key instruments in addressing inequality.

Education and hard work got me where I am. A bit of luck and a higher power helped definitely, but only if you work hard. Patience and being realistic are also part of the ingredients/characters.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

My weeks vary. Some are packed with meetings, which are a must when you are a public servant, and they demand a lot. Most of these require preparation, reading, preparing presentations, etc. Some weeks are a few meetings and one gets time to read a bit and reflect on issues, i.e. brainstorm with colleagues. This does not happen as often as I would like though. Some weeks are a mixture of all sorts of things, meetings, a bit of reading, a bit of trying to sort out some problem(s), a lot of time on the phone and email, and/or face to face with colleagues talking through some issue(s), writing some note/speech, a bit of whining, etc. these are long and happens more often that I would like. But all these are necessary and part of the job. I think this is why my job is interesting, sounds contradictory. I bemoan the lack of time to read and attend engagements such as seminars/workshops, etc., which makes weeks and days even longer. It means compromising evenings/nights and weekends as these are used for reading to catch up. Reading is a necessary part of the job, but time for it is not adequately factored in.

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

Hard to say as I read a variety of books and articles. My reading currently is influenced by the area of work I am busy with. So I am reading in education (ECD, schooling, vocational education, higher education), labour markets, social protection, as these are the areas I am working on. I was an influenced reader when I was younger. I would recall that some of the work that influenced my interests and a broader key message of interest in each are Becker’s work on Human Capital and equally Blaug’s work on education as a ‘screening device’, and Thurow’s work on labour market as a training market rather than an auction market. Then there is Hanushek’s work, I think it brings together a group of good analysts in the area of economics of education. It is like a ‘reference’ source. For a young student (then), with interest in education and labour markets, it was fascinating to read their work and the different views. But it also highlighted the important yet complex relationship between education and the labour market. My reading processes have changed since then. I distil critical messages from my readings; I don’t have any particular favourite. I would however prescribe Outliers to all students in particular. Hard work pays but it does not come easy and is not immediate, practice, practice and practice.

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

I think, most areas have been researched, but under-researched. Meaning it is the same narrative, almost similar analysis, hence same outcomes/messages from the research.

But I will go with the following:

First; is accountability in education. We all know that teachers are a critical component for improvement in education, we all point fingers at teachers (and Sadtu) for poor performance, we point to teachers’ poor content knowledge, etc.  I have not seen an analysis that looks at why teachers (a large proportion of them) in our system are doing so badly. What is the impact of poor education administration on school performance? Econometric analysis that I have seen says, not much, but I argue that if one was to use a different methodology to assess this, you may find that it has a huge impact. Hence we cannot only point fingers at teachers when there is poor performance, if they do not get support from the districts, provinces, national, they can’t be blamed. Teachers in performing schools have mostly gone through the same training as those in under-performing schools, why does the issue of teachers’ mastery of content an issue in under-performing schools and not in other schools?

Similarly, why is Sadtu so powerful? I think it point to failure of management/administration. Lines are blurred. It is almost as if we have not defined the line between a teacher and an administrator/management in the system. In my view, once a person becomes a principal/district /provincial/national official they take on a different role in the system, their labour relations interests cannot be represented by Sadtu. And I think that happens because of the way our ‘education system’ has evolved. There is no accountability built in the system.

The second; is centralisation versus decentralisation of education. It is related to the first, but takes a slightly different angle. Here as well I think the lines are blurred. Hence accountability is an issue. Who do we hold accountable for what in education, and who is responsible for what part of the system. Given the vast geographical differences in our country, should we decentralise more (and to what level, i.e. Province or District or School) or is centralisation the best model, what part of the system should be centralised/decentralised. What are the lessons from the past 20 years or so?

The third is related to foundation learning. Starting from ECD (not Grade R, but prior to that). Here one of the areas that I think need thorough research relates to the language of instruction and the impact of learning or not learning in mother tongue at foundation phase for future performance. I don’t think this issue is well understood and properly contextualised. It seems many people are saying teach in mother tongue at foundation phase? I wonder if, despite what international evidence say, we understand what this means in the South African context and how correct and feasible this is.

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

To apply in my life – love what you are doing and give it your best shot, it makes doing it enjoyable and easy. And don’t be afraid to try new things, it is okay to fail as long as you learn lessons from failure and do better next time.

To apply at work- inconsistency in application/implementation can turn an excellent public policy into a bad policy.

6)   As Programme Manager and Coordinator of the Human Capabilities and Social Protection Working Group of the NPC,  I’m sure you have considerable first-hand experience of the real-world challenges that those in government face on a daily basis. Can you explain some of the under-appreciated challenges faced by the NPC?

I think people forget that it is only now that as a country we are appreciating the importance of having a long-term plan for the country, that this is a ‘new function’ in government. The NPC does not have answers and shares everyone’s concerns with respect to how the NDP will be implemented. We are all learning.

It is also under-appreciated that the NPC as a structure is not properly institutionalised. Sometimes there are huge expectations and while the NPC tries its best, it has not been worked out how it operates and relate to other functions of government. Every department has its ‘planning’ unit, but we know the challenges with how these are conceptualised and function. We need to work out how these interface with the NPC, National Treasury, StatsSA, etc. as all these form part of the planning function. It is exciting that the ANC, in its manifesto, put this issue of institutionalising planning on the agenda. It must happen. We need to improve our planning in government, and move from high level plans to planning implementation to the ‘t’. Planning is not an event with a defined single output –A plan, it is a continuous, iterative process.

There are also expectations that because there is now an NPC and NDP implementation will improve. NDP is still very high level, and most of the proposals need to be unpacked. I am not sure if the NPC is given enough space and time to unpack these proposals and engage with those who should implement. The advantage of the NPC is that you have people who are not drowned in the day to day running of line-function departments, hence should have space to read, think differently about the challenges of implementation and support line-function departments in every step of the implementation process. Department officials should be relying on the NPC to assist and support. It can be a neutral player as it has no interest except to support, improve coordination and bring in fresh thinking. Currently most of the challenges get picked up during monitoring of progress by the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation, and even then, it is still high level monitoring, the fault- lines are missed. Most of these fault-lines are in implementation plans and strategies, which, most of the time do not exist. This however, cannot happen with a structure that is under-capacitated. Commissioners are not full-time, it is difficult to get all Commissioners to a meeting for example, and there is a small secretariat.

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

 An environmentalist of sorts. I think I will be spending time doing something related to studying and protecting animals, I have a special liking of the big cats. National Geographic is my favourite TV channel.

8)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

A bit of both. I like face to face interaction. Maybe it’s because of my age! But I also think given our socio-economic challenges, it may perpetuate inequality (some would say it may be the game changer). We should not underestimate the poor access to basics of technology for most poor people in this country!

I recently read a book by Salman Khan –The One World School House. It made me think about the possibilities of technology in education, especially in instances where teachers’ content knowledge is lacking. It also scared me a bit, because I think it is not about ‘if’ but ‘when’ technology will be a key component in education. It makes me scared because I am not sure if we are ready for that.

I am also influenced by the increasing number of young people who are doing wonders with technology.

9) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

I interpret research broadly. I would use it to pilot different ways of improving quality teaching and learning in different contexts in SA. We all complain about poor quality of education, but I am not sure we know what we are complaining about and what to do about it. What works in what context and how to effect change. One of the fascinating areas to investigate is what is happening in the Quintile 2 schools that seem to be performing relatively well, what makes them work and why not in other schools. We need to move away from high level talk and analysis and understand what is happening at the school level, at the individual learner level. Our policies and intervention programmes must be informed by that.

Part of the problem I think is that we ‘overuse’ senior certificate results as a measure of how our system is doing. By the time learners are in Grade 12, it is a bit too late, because they are exiting the system. Meanwhile, every semester at least and yearly learners write exams in each Grade, we do not know how they are performing at the lower Grades, their progression, etc., and there is no mechanisms to use these results to understand performance at lower Grades and find ways to improve. We only wake up to the fact that about 40-50 per cent of a cohort that started Grade 1 is not writing senior secondary certificate, but are not sure at what point in the system do things begin to go bad and why, thus how can we intervene. We speculate that it at the end of the compulsory phase – Grade 9 or age 15, but the question is why a rational learner would drop out of the system when there are no positive prospects for them beyond that point.

R10 million is not a lot of money, but I would also invest a bit on education planning. I am referring to broad planning, understanding the implications of demographics, migration, social dynamics, town planning and developments, etc. on education provision and funding of education.

10) Having considerable experience in higher education in South Africa, you are well positioned to answer the following question: what do you think are the major challenges facing the higher education sector in South Africa in the next 10 years?

Inability to reproduce itself. I would spend all my money on ensuring that output in higher education increase both quantitatively and qualitatively, from undergraduate to post graduate. It is scary, and I am not sure if we are paying enough attention to this. I don’t use the term crisis often and loosely, but I think we are facing a crisis there. This is also because higher education has to produce skilled people for the economy as well. The pool is very small. Progress in development of this country is dependent on what we do in this area today I would argue. If we do not turn the wheel now, we should forget about taking this country to a higher and positive trajectory.

Related to the first challenge is the small size of the sector. We must look beyond the enrolment numbers in higher education and focus on participation rate, the distribution of these numbers by area of study and the throughput (graduates). While it is understandable that to grow the size, schooling has to improve and grow even faster, there is more that can be done to make the system more efficient. The failure and drop-out rates at these institutions are unacceptable.

The third challenge relates to clarity of identity and mission of our institutions, FET Colleges, and the newly proposed Community Colleges, Adult Education Centres and Comprehensive Universities and Universities of Technology. I am not sure if it is clear for young people in secondary school today what options they have when they leave school, which option is better suited for their career choices, pros-and cons of each, etc. For example, do they have to study up to matric to gain entry into an FET College, and is this applicable to all areas of study?

Universities are expected to be everything to everyone, because they have a relatively good reputation compared to Colleges. If we do not ensure that we clean up the image of colleges, ensure that they produce quality graduates who are employable, then we will continue to put pressure on universities, hence they have so many students doing Diplomas, which should be done in Colleges. It is pointless to have high numbers of young people in Colleges when the outcome of that is not of value for the individual, the economy and society.

 The fourth I think is the link between higher education and the world of work. The two seem to be operating in isolation. There are pockets of cooperation and linkages, but for the most part there is a serious disconnect. You see this in teaching, research, innovation and employability issues.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, and Khulekani Mathe. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

(My M&G article) Education rankings: There’s madness in WEF methods

My article on the World Economic Forum (WEF) education ranking fiasco appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 13th of June (reposted here – original on M&G website here).

mg wef

“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.

Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University. He can be followed on Twitter (@Nic­Spaull) and his research can be found at

Q&A with Joy Olivier


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 fifteenth interview in the series. Joy Olivier is co-founder and Director of Ikamva Youth.

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

In 2003 I was working at the HSRC, looking at how research and development and science, technology and innovation (STI) drive the economy. We were also looking at the transformation of the scientific community for NACI, and this brought me to the (then) Higher Grade maths and science results of black matriculants. My colleague Makhosi Gogwana and I shared an office, and talked about this a lot. Initially, I thought there must be something wrong with the data as the numbers of learners who were matriculating with results that made them eligible to study anything requiring Maths and Science in an entire province were more like what should be coming out of a handful of schools. Makhosi had gone to junior school in the Eastern Cape, and then moved to a high school in Khayelitsha for secondary for a better education. In comparing our educational backgrounds, we realised that what’s missing for learners in disadvantaged areas are information and support. Naive, optimistic and driven to do something about the problem we were learning about, we called up Makhosi’s old school and sent emails to our friends asking who wants to tutor. Everyone said yes and Ikamva Youth (IY) was born. I had no idea that what was essentially a hobby would become my full time job – never mind other peoples’!

2)   What does your average week look like?

I don’t really have an average week. In the past two weeks I’ve had to go to Joza township near Grahamstown to deal with an organisational crisis, and am currently at an airport on my way back from a workshop with one of our donors in San Francisco.

My work pings me between the extremities of poverty and wealth; between townships and palaces. It can be quite discombobulating, but I also feel really lucky to have these super diverse experiences. I’m always learning a LOT.

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?

He summarises the work that’s been done with disadvantaged, poor-performing high school students very well, and makes a convincing argument that change can happen at this level.

Reminding us that believing that you can do it, and having access to middle-class resources like networks, advice, community norms of tertiary education and access to employment, are some of the things that explain the disparities in academic achievement between under- and well-resourced kids.

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

Nic Spaull :P He’s super smart and has a wonderful mix of passion to do something balanced with an analytical and critical view on things.

It’s pretty depressing that I can’t think of anyone else right now, but it could also be the jetlag

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

It’s crazy to me that we don’t know the percentage of black kids going into university that come from disadvantaged areas. Without knowing this and then seeking to improve on it, we’re essentially ensuring the perpetuation of inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor.

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

Leigh Meinert told me that people take you seriously when you start to take yourself seriously. She was right.

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?

  1. Someone has to take on the unions. Teachers are not “workers”; it’s a profession, and not showing up to work and striking when you’re supposed to be teaching is not only unprofessional, it’s diabolical.
  2. Rather than have curriculum delivered to them, learners need to learn how to learn. The focus should be on pedagogy and peer learning; there is WAY too much focus on curriculum and content.
  3. Literacy and Numeracy.

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

Hmm good question. Community psychology, maybe. Or perhaps an entrepreneurial venture that has a smart way to reduce inequality. Oh actually what I’m doing falls into both of these things. I think I’d like to find a model that’s self-sustaining and not donor reliant. When things are heavy and the stress of responsibility and challenges get to me I think I might like to be a lady of leisure, although I know that wouldn’t last too long.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

So this was my field, when I worked at and then did my masters in Ed and Tech. And it made me a sceptic. However, I do feel that mobile tech and some of the apps are starting to look really promising. I’m excited about what Siyavula and Fundza are doing, and with most kids having feature phones and Internet access gradually becoming more of a reality, I’m shifting back towards potential fanhood.

10) If you were given a R10million research grant what would you use it for?

I’d like find answers to these questions:

  • See answer to q5 above.

Then IY-specific qs:

  • How many learners in township and rural schools would opt into being a part of IY if they had the opportunity?
  • How much of our learners’ results are due to their being a part of IY and how much is due to what they would have achieved anyway without us?
  • Which aspects of what we do feed into the results, and which bits are just nice to have or could be tweaked to be more efficient (eg. learner:tutor ratio, winter school etc.)
  • Piloting different models of online tutoring and seeing what works.

11) Ikamva Youth  is a highly successful NGO providing meaningful opportunities to many South African youth. What would you say are the three or four major “ingredients” in its success?

  •  A culture of learning and collaboration, where learning is cool and learners are motivated to attend
  • Low cost, high impact (with clear metrics for measuring impact)
  • Learners becoming tutors; they’re amazing role models who are changing their communities
  • Focus is on learning and not content

12) Ikamva Youth is a grass-roots organization with considerable links to the community and to students. In many countries around the world there is often a disconnect between what is happening at a national-policy level and what the reality is on the ground – do you believe this is also the case in South Africa? And if so, in which areas is this disconnect most apparent? 

Yebo. There is some awareness of the usefulness of extending school hours, which is great, with SSIP and other after-school programmes being implemented. However, what’s being implemented in most places is just more of what’s already not working for more money. Its really frustrating when initiatives get scaled up and funds spent without any tracking or monitoring of results and impact.

13) What would you say are the three major difficulties faced by civil-society organizations in South Africa, and what advice would you give to people who are in the start-up phase of an NGO? 

  • Hiring experienced, good people who can exceed expectations is a major challenge and a key to getting things right
  • Decide what you want to achieve and how you’re going to measure whether or not you’re achieving it from the beginning
  • Think about self-sustainability models from the beginning
  • Always stretch to implement learnings and grow, but don’t stretch too much too quickly


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, and Percy Moleke. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.