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We need more than a stab in the dark (M&G article co-authored with Hamsa Venkat)

maths teacher

We need more than a stab in the dark” – Hamsa Venkat & Nic Spaull

[This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 8th of August 2014.]

Almost everything that is associated with mathematics in South Africa is either contentious or depressing or both. One could talk about the flawed World Economic Forum rankings, the confusion around the pass mark in matric, or the fact that only 3% of Grade 9 students reached the “High” or “Advanced” mathematics benchmark in the 2011 round of international student testing in Timss. However it is not our intention to bang the now familiar drum of low and unequal performance – the refrain that best characterises our schooling system. Of course we need to know how bad things really are, but we also need to know why they are so bad, and perhaps more importantly how we get ourselves out of this quagmire.

In grappling with these issues we believe that the national discourse around schooling needs to turn towards our most critical resource: teachers. No education system can move beyond the quality of its teachers. At its most basic level this is essentially what schooling is; the student and the teacher in the presence of content. Harvard’s Professor Richard Elmore has argued again and again that there are really only three ways to improve student learning at scale: (1) raise the level of content that students are taught, (2) increase the knowledge and skills that teachers bring to the teaching of that content, or (3) increase the level of students’ active learning of the content. In the South African context the evidence points towards huge deficits in the latter two areas: teacher content knowledge and pedagogical skill as well as low levels of curriculum coverage and cognitive demand.

Without ambiguity or the possibility of misinterpretation, all studies of mathematics teachers in South Africa have shown that teachers do not have the content knowledge of mathematics needed to impart to students even a rudimentary understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, almost all of these studies have been small-scale localised initiatives aimed at testing teachers in only a few schools or at most in one district. One recent exception was the 2013 analysis by Nick Taylor and Stephen Taylor of the SACMEQ 3 (2007) data – the most recent nationally representative data on teacher content knowledge. At the end of their paper they concluded that, “The subject knowledge base of the majority of South African grade 6 mathematics teachers is simply inadequate to provide learners with a principled understanding of the discipline.” In a paper we published this week we extended Taylor and Taylor’s work and analysed the nationally representative SACMEQ data from a curricular perspective. We wanted to know what grade 6 mathematics teachers know relative to the curriculum that their students are expected to master (CAPS).

This is important to determine what level in-service and pre-service teacher training should focus on. Preliminary results from a Joint Education Trust study show that pre-service training courses offered by five South African institutions had large differences in the amount and the nature of mathematics on offer. Furthermore, in-service education is commonly piecemeal, and frequently related to ‘managing’ the curriculum and assessment rather than with promoting understanding and communication of mathematics.

The findings from our analysis were sobering. Based on the 401 Grade 6 teacher responses in the SACMEQ 3 sample, we found that 79% of South African grade 6 mathematics teachers have a content knowledge level below the grade 6/7 level band even though they are currently teaching grade 6 mathematics. It is also worth noting that our definition of grade-level-mastery was a relatively low benchmark – teachers only needed to score 60% of the items in a grade band correct to be classified as competent in that band. Breaking this grade band analysis down further, the following patterns of results were seen:

  • 17% of the teachers had content knowledge below a grade 4 or 5 level
  • 62% of the teachers had a grade 4 or 5 level of content knowledge
  • 5% of the teachers had a grade 6 or 7 level of content knowledge
  • 16% of the teachers had at least a grade 8 or 9 level of content knowledge

Our analysis also confirmed particular weaknesses on problems relating to ratio and proportion, and multiplicative reasoning more generally – the kind of thinking that underlies many tasks involving fractions and decimal working as well.

While sobering, this analysis is useful for policy purposes and useful for thinking pragmatically about primary mathematics teacher education and development. The results suggest the need to begin work at the level of concepts at lower levels (Grades 4 and 5) in order to build more solid foundations of key ideas, rather than starting with higher-level mathematics.

We would argue that many of the problems we see in South African schools often have their roots in low levels of teacher content knowledge. When teachers lack confidence in the subject they are teaching this leads to two consequences. Either they do not cover those parts of the curriculum with which they are uncomfortable or they restrict classroom interactions to low-level problems that limit students’ opportunity to learn. Gaps in content knowledge also lead to highly disconnected mathematics teaching. This works against helping students to see connections between mathematical ideas, connections that are important for flexible and efficient problem-solving.

There are some signs of mobilization in the education field. The Association of Mathematics Educators of South Africa established a mathematics teacher education group in 2013 and has begun gathering information on pre-service course offerings. The Joint Education Trust study nearing completion is doing the same for the Intermediate Phase level. The Department of Basic Education has started preliminary work on developing tests which can be used to identify which teachers have critically low levels of content knowledge. All these initiatives are commendable and show promise, but the key obstacle to progress remains a lack of evaluation of in-service teacher training programs.

We know that content knowledge is not the whole story: good mathematics teaching requires a host of practical and interactional skills, but deep and connected content knowledge is a critical base. In researching our paper, we were unable to find evidence of any intervention that has been shown to raise mathematics teacher content knowledge at any scale in South Africa. Not a single one. Programs need to be piloted and evaluated before they are scaled up and only scaled up if they actually work. They should also be evaluated at different scales. Models that work for 10 schools may not work for 100 schools. What works in Gauteng may not work in the Eastern Cape. In the absence of rigorous evaluation we are shooting in the dark on a wing and a prayer. Our teachers deserve better.

There are moves towards more open discussions about problems related to teachers’ mathematical knowledge and greater consensus around the need for longer term interventions and evaluation of our development models and efforts. We believe that our findings and those of others, contentious as they might be, are important to face and acknowledge if we are to develop intervention models and content that build from the ground as it currently stands towards the improved mathematical outcomes that we all so desperately want to see.


Professor Hamsa Venkatakrishnan holds the position of SA Numeracy Chair at Wits University. Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. Their joint research paper can be found 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,


(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 Michael Myburgh


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 fourteenth interview in the series. Michael Myburgh is the CEO of NAPTOSA Gauteng.

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

 My choice of teaching was influenced by firstly a need to have my university education funded (bursaries for teaching were relatively easily available) and secondly by one particular teacher whose passion for teaching was inspirational, both inside and outside the classroom. He became a mentor when I entered the teaching profession. My plans at that stage were to obtain a degree in Mathematics, teach for the required 4 years and then get a “real job”. I started teaching and stayed in schools for 23 highly satisfying years in the classroom as well as school management, and then a change to tertiary education as Vice-Rector at the Johannesburg College of Education.  Throughout the years in schools and the College I had a parallel interest in teacher politics. The exciting period was from 1986 through 1994 when the teacher association I was involved with was attempting to break out of its apartheid mould.  First came a flirtation with the teacher unity forum, which lead to the formation of SADTU. This exercise came to an end one week before its launch!  Then came the work to provide a home for the so-called professional teacher associations and the founding of NAPTOSA, first as a federation and then as a unitary body.  In 1997 I left the profession to take on the post of chief executive of a teacher union which evolved into NAPTOSA in Gauteng.

 2)    What does your average week look like?

Sometimes it seems to be “death by committee”.  In truth the real work is the interaction with teachers. As an educator union we deal with teachers who are volunteers and give of their time to the union in order to promote a better teaching environment as well as those members who need assistance. Although the staffing corps of the Union deals with the usual unionist aspects of negotiations, advice to members and representing them in hearings and disputes when necessary, the exciting work is the professional development of members and other teachers.  A good deal of the week is taken up in the planning and organisation of 8 professional conferences held during the year and which focus on teacher development. That planning also includes a programme of professional development courses, activities and seminars held on most afternoons during the term.  Some of these are in collaboration with Wits and other organisations but all focus on needs expressed by teachers with an aim to improve teaching and learning.

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?

 The books and articles I read usually reflect my two overarching interests and the most influential at any one time are often those I am currently reading.  The first of these is the role and effectiveness of ongoing professional development of teachers.  The current interest in communities of practice and the role of the “expert” in these is a focus.  A book by Helen Timperey et al, “Teacher Professional Learning and Development”, is one I am reading which explores professional development of teachers.

The second interest is the teaching of Mathematics, how people learn mathematics (or construct their knowledge) and the formation of misconceptions in the learning of the subject.  A book by Paul Ernest, “Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of Mathematics” has led to a re-examination of my notions of the nature of mathematics and whether this influences how one teaches. Of more general interest to me is a book by the Russian mathematician now living in the US, Edward Frenkel, “Love and Math”, which is an account of how he became enthralled in the learning of mathematics through mentors and their challenges to him to solve problems in higher maths and  now his involvement in one of the great frontiers of maths research.

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

 I am not at all sure that in the field of unionism I believe there are eminent thinkers, certainly none I would regard as such.  There are those who promote a particular socialist philosophy.  I have difficulty in promoting workerest views in an education setting.  The conflict with a child-centred set of beliefs is all too apparent.

In education generally the work of the Finnish educationist Pasi Sahlberg interests me.  I have been following some of his work at Harvard where he was a visiting professor recently.  His account of Finland’s 40-year period of change in education which resulted in a phenomenal success story and education system is instructive in relation to our own halting efforts at education change.  In particular, the creation of teaching as a respected and sought after profession where a master’s degree is the entry level is important!  The work of Andy Hargreaves remains a favourite.

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

 Teacher training, both initial and continuing, need to be intensively researched.  What knowledge base do teachers need to effectively practice as educators?  Does initial teacher training prepare students for their roles as teachers?  The debate of a professional degree versus a general degree and postgraduate diploma is not yet dead and should be part of the research.  Implicit in these questions is the selection of students for teacher training.  Is it possible to identify what qualities an applicant should exhibit.  In Finland, for example, the selection criteria, including both academic and vocational interests, are stringent.

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

 Never stay in a job if you don’t enjoy what you are doing or your efforts are not appreciated. I have tried to follow that advice.  Life is far too short to be unhappy and to feel unfulfilled for a great part of each day.  Staying in education, whether it was teaching, management or teacher politics was the correct choice.

 7)    As the Chief Executive Officer of NAPTOSA Gauteng, can you explain some of the under-appreciated challenges faced by teacher unions in South Africa?

 The negative press that teaching attracts when a teacher is accused of some heinous behaviour frequently implies that the teaching corps is labelled as rotten, or when references are made to “teacher unions” when more often than not the author is referring to SADTU but for some reason or other would prefer to hide behind the generic.  Having said that, teacher unions in general do have an image problem which they are not dealing with effectively.

The dilemma of marrying the unionist functions with a desire to be a professional association is greater in some unions, such as NAPTOSA, than in some others but this remains an issue which teacher unions are having to face including their approach to the question of what is professionalism.

 The lack of funding for professional development activities, offered by most unions for their members and teachers in general, inhibits more ambitious programmes.  While the Department of Basic Education had proposed a funding model for teacher unions to assist with professional development this occurred once only and then quietly died.  The few provincial education departments that do provide funds for the development of teachers (eg Gauteng and Western Cape) usually tie these up in expensive programmes which are department controlled.  The Western Cape has shown some promise by outsourcing several of their programmes while Gauteng has brought all of their programmes back in-house (eg the literacy and mathematics primary school project).

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

 That is difficult to say.  It’s been such a long time since my plan of getting a “real” job. I suppose it would have been something related to mathematics research or when I finally accepted that I wouldn’t make it at that level in the discipline…

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

 A very cautious fan – I have little doubt about the value of many forms of technology, whether used by teachers or students when it aids the learning process and construction of knowledge.  Efforts though to downplay or even replace the human element appear to me to be an attempt to mechanise teaching and learning.

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

The question of what constitutes good professional development for teachers and how this might lead to a sustainable improvement in teaching and learning is not well understood especially in the complex South African situation.  Researching the variety of different forms of ongoing teacher development and how each influences teaching and learning over a period of time is necessary.  While it is true that a number of doctoral studies have and are being conducted, a comprehensive research programme might provide an insight into one of the big questions in our system: how do we improve the quality of teaching and learning?

 11) Having considerable experience in basic education in South Africa, do you think there have been any major changes in the “mind-set” surrounding basic education in South Africa in the last 15 years? If so, what do you think those changes have been and what has caused them?

 The changes in the “mind-set” surrounding Basic Education has, amongst others, their roots in societal change, curriculum changes and the massification of education.

 Societal change and the culture of human rights have created an imbalance between rights and responsibilities.  While teachers point to the restrictions that children’s rights place on discipline in the classroom, they themselves are also part of the imbalance.  The increasing lack of autonomy is leading teachers in a retreat from taking responsibility for their own teaching.

 Curriculum change has contributed to this phenomenon.  From the heady days of OBE where teachers supposedly mediated the broad curriculum statement to the current situation where the curriculum statement (CAPS) instructs teachers what to teach and when to teach, what to assess, how to assess and how frequently. Teachers who are well educated, trained and experienced are able to resist the intrusion into their professional domain.  There are not nearly as many as there should be.

 The massification of education has been a huge achievement but the inequalities in the system still exist, and combined with the increasing lack of a sense of responsibility, quality education is perceived to be the victim.

 12)Although NAPTOSA is the second largest teacher union in South Africa, it is dwarfed in size by the much larger SADTU. Would you say that NAPTOSA and SADTU are well-aligned in terms of targeted “outcomes”? Why or why not?

 There are good reasons for the existence of more than one teacher union.  It is true that some of these are historical and in some cases are artefacts of the apartheid past.  The primary areas of difference between SADTU and NAPTOSA are the philosophy and principles that each claims as important.  More importantly it is how each union reacts in a variety of situations.  SADTU is often referred to as militant or worker oriented, while NAPTOSA has been accused of being “compliant” because of its child-centred approach.


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, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Links I liked…

tiny grass

  • Great interview with my supervisor Servaas van der Berg on his work in Social Policy. I really enjoyed this quote: “You know that in the end the country will get through these and other contortions…The question is actually how many years it will take and how much time will be lost in the process.” (I clearly haven’t found the patience to cope with these ‘lost years’ yet – they make me so mad!)
  • An illuminating open-letter written by Pieter Odendall (2012) to Stellenbosch University’s Rector Russel Botman asking why it is that we still continue to honor the architects apartheid on the University’s campus. Really well worth the read. I completely agree with him.
  • Six videos of Douglas Willms explaining things like “Raising and levelling the learning bar” and “Informing decisions with leading indicators.” High up on my “to-watch” list.
  • Stephen Taylor & Co are currently in the beginning phases of a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) to evaluate early grade reading strategies in South Africa. Even if this isn’t your field I’d encourage you to look through this 6-page summary document since it gives a nice overview of their approach. They are also looking for a project associate to run the project (part-time) for the next 6-months or so. If you feel you’re qualified drop him a mail (he’s a really nice guy).
  • Interesting Paul Krugman NYRB review of Piketty’s new magisterial book “Capital in the 21th Century.” It’s now on my ‘to-read’ list. In the book Piketty quips that economics “has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaborations with the other social sciences”
  • White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack” – I definitely want to blog about this at some stage.
  • 20 ways to turn your life into a Wes Anderson movie – I especially enjoyed #5 (Only ever engage in complicated love affairs) and #19 (Be childish – run away, build forts, live in treehouses).
  • Applications are now open for the two-week 2014 LSE-UCT July School in Cape Town, run in South Africa this summer by LSE and the University of Cape Town from 30 June – 11 July (deadline for early applications 24 April). The programme’s ten courses enable participants to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by Africa today from a range of social science perspectives. For more information and to apply online please go to or email us at
  • The Economist takes a measured approach to the Pistorius hoo-haa: “Whatever the verdict in the Pistorius-Steenkamp case, expect news coverage to focus on South Africa’s high levels of violence. Things are indeed pretty dire. But the truth is that for men and women alike, things are less bad than they used to be“.

Stellenbosch homophobia: A response in 8 GIFs


Judging from the positive response to my previous blog post, it would seem that I am not the only one who wants to be celebrated and not just tolerated. As someone who enjoys a bit of controversy, I am so very glad that my friend and colleague Johan Fourie pushed back a little and probed some of my sweeping statements related to Stellenbosch and specifically those related to language, race and culture. I believe that only in teaching do we learn, and only in defending our positions do they become truly our own. So thanks Johan – the wheels of progress are oiled with opposition, confrontation and critique.

Let me start by saying that I do love Stellenbosch. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world that I have ever been to and it has been my home for four years. I am indebted to the professors here who have taught me practically everything I know about education and social policy. In a country of horrific violent crime and incompetence, the campus is an oasis of safety and functionality. It is efficient, productive and entrepreneurial. It is also unequal and conservative.

I’m also glad Johan goaded me on this issue since I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while. Rather than paraphrase his arguments (and miss the Barry Roux reference) I’ll include his comments verbatim below and then address the points one by one.

“Hi Nic. An excellent post as usual, challenging and thought-provoking. But let me be devil’s advocate and ask whether your experience of Stellenbosch as ‘conservative, White, Afrikaans … that is subversively and insidiously homophobic (and White)’ is not your experience of ‘Stellenbosch’ but rather your experience of the church and the social networks linked to it. Even if you want to portray Stellenbosch as white, which means you ignore the black and Coloured communities, and even if you want to portray Stellenbosch as Afrikaans, which means you ignore the large presence of English-speaking whites (Rhenish?) and Xhosa-speaking blacks, how can I, white and Afrikaans and living in Stellenbosch as I am, not take offence at your assertion that I thus partake in this ‘subversively and insidiously homophobic’ behaviour? I put it to you that, perhaps, your social network of earlier were biased towards those less tolerant of homosexuality than the average Stellenbosch inhabitant you would have encountered in a counterfactual world had you arrived as homosexual Nic, a world in which, presumably, you would not have attended a church that are explicitly homophobic. So instead of ‘Stellenbosch is homophobic’, your reason to move to Cape Town is more an attempt to avoid ‘a sub-culture of Stellenbosch that I do not want to be confronted with again’. That is a more than good enough reason to move, of course, but different to the one you are currently proposing. Because, if you want to label ‘white and Afrikaans’ as homophobic, are you not committing the exact generalised prejudice you warn against?”

hmm very interesting

There are a number of points here, let me try and address them systematically:

1) Stellenbosch homophobia: sub-culture or mainstream?

I think the first point and over-arching theme of Johan’s criticism is that my views are based on my experience of a particular sub-culture of Stellenbosch (homophobic churches and associated social networks) and that this is not an accurate representation of mainstream Stellenbosch culture. I have to disagree. Let me use a well-known example to illustrate my point. One of the traditions in Stellenbosch is called “Soen in Die Laan” meaning ‘kiss in the avenue” where students congregate in one particular street on a specific day at a certain time and they kiss each other. I’m not sure how it started, perhaps a quaint throwback to earlier times of sexual repression, who knows. In any event, during my first year at Stellenbosch (2010), two gay UCT students decided to kiss each other at ‘Soen in Die Laan’ which caused a big stir in the town. It made the front page of Die Matie, the university’s student newspaper and proceeded to go viral. Now, I put it to you that if my experience of below-the-surface homophobia in Stellenbosch was merely a sub-culture then the backlash to this innocent kiss would only have been seen in church newsletters and Sunday sermons rather than the front page of the student paper? Yes, some of the reactions were positive, but much of it wasn’t, for example “Copies of the newspaper were ruined, defaced and slashed as students discussed the impropriety of the image and how it had made them ‘throw up’ “ (from here). It’s perhaps useful here to mention that this was an innocent kiss between two consenting adults? I’m sorry, WTF?! Perhaps a more recent example – last year I heard about two guys being thrown out of Terrace (a nightclub in Stellenbosch) and beaten up for kissing on the dance floor. These are just the visible surface-breaching manifestations of homophobia on campus. But Johan, if you don’t believe me, perhaps some first-hand experience may convince you – why not walk down Victoria Street around lunch time holding hands with another guy and pretend you’re in a relationship and see the looks you get. Nuff said.

2) Booby-trap consolation prize: bad is better than worse

I think one of the comments Johan made was also quite revealing: “Perhaps your social network of earlier were biased towards those less tolerant of homosexuality than the average Stellenbosch inhabitant you would have encountered in a counterfactual world had you arrived as homosexual Nic.” That is almost certainly true but misses the point of my argument. I do think that the average student in Stellenbosch is more tolerant than the average church-goer, but the whole point of my post is that I do not want to simply be “tolerated” as if that were something to strive for or accept. I think people should be endorsed, affirmed and celebrated for who they are, not merely tolerated. Basically, this entire excerpt from Johan’s comment is taking place in the “tolerating” (i.e. accepting) domain rather than the “celebrating” (i.e. affirming) domain.

3) Portrayal of Stellenbosch as White, Afrikaans and conservative – T/F?

Another point Johan raises is that my depiction of Stellenbosch as White/Afrikaans/conservative is inaccurate and ignores the racial, linguistic and political diversity of the campus. I disagree. Acknowledging, identifying and referring only to dominant majorities doesn’t “ignore” minorities it just highlights rhetorically the dominant role of the majority and the marginalization of the minority, which is exactly what I was trying to do here. Regarding the race issue, I blogged about this last year during “Maties Diversity Week” where I dug up the racial statistics in Stellenbosch (I was personally curious) and summarised the findings in the graph below.


I only include UCT as a benchmark comparator to show that even in English-speaking universities (UCT) – where language is less of a barrier – White students predominate. Yet, I was still surprised by the lack of transformation over this 4-year period (2009-2012). In 2012, more than two thirds of the students at Stellenbosch were White. (Remember Whites make up less than 15% of the South African population). It would’ve been nice to look at the linguistic breakdown of the White group at Stellenbosch and disaggregate it into first-language English and first-language Afrikaans students but alas I didn’t have time to look into it.

So looking specifically at race, yes, there are some Black and Coloured students on Campus in Stellenbosch, but for every Black student there are almost 5 White students. This is just in purely racial terms. Given that universities (like most social organizations) have strong institutional inertia/memory, the dominant culture at the university is Afrikaans culture. I am not saying that is a bad thing, only that that is the case. I also don’t think that we should equate racial “share” with cultural “share” at the university for the reason that there are often cultural economies of scale with threshold effects below which there is little legitimate cultural diversity.

Apart from a lack of cultural diversity, I also think that there is a lingering sense of half-cloaked racism on campus.  Let me provide some examples:

1)   A friend of mine at the university relayed a story of being told that one of the nightclubs on campus was “full” when it clearly wasn’t and that the main reason for this was that there were a group of eight or so Black students who wanted to get in and that they were “too black.”

dance nigga

2)   It was only last year that I had my own taste of this remnant racism. Given that I was living very close to campus I was walking home at around 9:30pm one evening and as I got close to the Dagbreek student residence on Bosman Street I heard a dog barking loudly about 20 meters in front of me. The closer I got I saw that there was a large dog barking viciously at a Black student on the pavement outside Dagbreek, preventing him from getting in. This dog was clearly aggressive and kept trying to lunge to bite the student, at which point he would jump away terrified. Worried for the student and seeing that the dog was clearly only barking at him because he was Black (for the non-South Africans out there this kind of thing happens – dogs can be socialised too!) I jumped in-between the barking dog and the student and I started shouting at the dog and holding my book up as if to hit it and also shouting: “Who the fuck does this dog belong to?!” After about 1 minute of this ordeal two White Dagbreek students waltzed past and then standing on either side of the student said “Ag, don’t worry about it Sizwa [not real name], he’s only barking at you because you are Black (laughs).” This was meant as a consolation as they escorted him into his own res – he was also a Dagbreek student. I later found out that this dog (Wolf) is actually owned by a Dagbreek student and kept at Dagbreek.

thats messed up

3)   Last year there was considerable commotion at the University convocation where many alumni and parents weren’t happy with the proposed rule that would require all residences to have racial quotas where at least 25% of their students would have to be from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. The main concerns that I could pick up (at least those publicly expressed) were that this would change the “culture” of the residences and that this was seen as a bad thing. Now I agree with them that I do think this rule will start to change the culture in res. Where I differ is that I think that’s marvellous and should be welcomed. I don’t think that you can live in South Africa – a beautiful multicultural, linguistically diverse and ethnically heterogeneous country – and not be exposed to different cultures and languages. To try and remain walled off from the rest of the world in order to preserve your culture is a losing strategy. Modernise, adapt, re-invent, re-discover, incorporate, synthesise, change. Or stagnate and die.

yoda dance

4) The exception to the rule doesn’t negate the rule

In his reply Johan also explains that he is partially offended that he, being a White Afrikaner in Stellenbosch, is assumed to partake in this insidious homophobia. This is a misunderstanding of dominant culture and individual variation since Johan is an exception to the rule (and there are many many others). I know Johan to be a liberal, open-minded and progressive person who has been very supportive to me and to other mutual friends who are gay. He’s a stand-up kind of guy. I also know that mainstream Stellenbosch/Afrikaans culture is conservative and subversively (i.e. not overtly) homophobic. These two things are not contradictory. This just means that Johan is in the upper tail of the cultural distribution being more educated and having travelled to many more countries than the average Stellenbosch resident or student (the latter being more important when looking at culture IMHO). If you grow up in a small, conservative, patriarchal town with religious parents and strong Christian moral guidelines, you are likely to bring that conservatism with you when you come to university. Ironically this conservatism is only tolerated to the extent that it is non-inhibiting. Parental/cultural views around drugs, alcohol and sex are clearly inhibiting and thus are usually the first to be revised.


But things like the importance of friends, family, education, language and culture are not personally inhibiting and thus the cultural dividend they pay and the identity capital they maintain warrants their retention. Unfortunately there is little perceived benefit to challenging one’s inherited views on race, homosexuality and gender. Why address these uncomfortable topics if you don’t have to? Cognitive dissonance is a bitch.


My conclusion on Stellenbosch culture is that the over-riding motto is live-and-let-live, to an extent. We (the disembodied cultural majority) are happy for you (the disembodied cultural minority) to express yourselves and your culture, as long as it does not infringe on our (majority) culture. If it does, we’ll have problems. If not, we love diversity. Obviously none of this is codified, but rather enforced through the insidious norms and expectations of most students, parents and staff.

no to the rainbow

Do I think this will change in the future? Yes – of course, it is inevitable. Am I going to stick around and wait for it to do so? No – ‘aint nobody got time for that!

A way forward…

Until the powers that be are serious enough to start tackling the extremely uncomfortable realities of race, language, history and culture in an open and transparent way, we shouldn’t be surprised at the occasional pressure-release expressions of homophobia and racism. I often wonder why there isn’t a permanent exhibition/museum highlighting the central role that Stellenbosch University played in apartheid (see here for one countervailing example). The central figures and fathers of apartheid – Verwoerd, Malan, Treurnicht, Hertzog – were all students at Stellenbosch, which has been described as the “crucible for Afrikaner nationalist ideas” in the 20th century. Do we think these students were inculcating themselves?! This is an awkward reality conveniently left out of the official “History of Stellenbosch University” webpage. [Disclaimer: This is a new area of interest to me so perhaps some of you out there (Johan?) know of existing SU programs that do exactly this that I've missed? Or articles, documentaries etc. Please post in the comments section if you do.]


What I’ve written above is reflective of my experience of Stellenbosch, which is one slice of the spectrum and by no means representative. I think the best way to figure out how Stellenbosch is experienced by different people is simply to ask them. I have no idea what Stellenbosch feels like for Muslims or lesbians or Black students? If you have anything you’d like to share about how you experience Stellenbosch please do leave a comment – I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Help at last for gem in the dust (Daily News March 27)


The following article appeared in the Daily News on the 27th of March and highlights the tireless work that a friend of mine Anne Immelman has been doing in a rural school in KZN (Meadowsweet Combined School). Anne was a high-school Mathematics teacher at St Mary’s School in KZN and now that she has retired she helps out at Meadowsweet. Well done Anne – we need hundreds more active citizens doing what they can, where they are, with what they have. (The above picture shows some of the damage sustained to one of the classrooms during a recent storm). 


“On the backroads of KwaZulu-Natal, just off the R600, 20km from the farming town of Winterton, there is a gem: a school that has produced a 100 percent matriculation five years in a row. Meadowsweet Combined School is dilapidated, but shone brightly among the 116 schools in the province which achieved perfection with the class of 2013. The school outperformed KZN’s 6 125 other schools, many of them with resources and facilities that make Meadowsweet pathetic by comparison. It has 500 pupils and the teacher-pupil ratio, with between 60 and 88 to a class, makes its results astonishing.

Meadowsweet is defying the odds, triumphing over ramshackle neglect. It is making fools of school peers who blame poor outcomes on facility inadequacies. Something really good is happening there, a chemistry that should be analysed, bottled and spread to the rest of the province and the country.

Part of the answer is Anne Immelman, a retired maths teacher who volunteers at the school. She wrote to the Daily News to draw attention to this roughest of diamonds, and her dutiful intervention has caught the attention of education bosses in Pietermaritzburg. Meadowsweet, it turns out, has for years been on the department’s waiting list. Immelman’s cry for help has expedited it, with building of 17 new classrooms, two administrative blocks, four multipurpose rooms, fencing, and ablution facilities to replace the pit latrines, to start in May.

This school is the most deserving of recipients, with staff and pupils alike brushing aside bleak conditions, refusing ample excuses available to them for falling short of excellence. Praise to Meadowsweet for its outstanding achievements. And thanks to Anne Immelman for her citizen activism, drawing attention to this gem in the dust, and catching the eye of the right officials.”

Article from here.

SACMEQ data archive available for download


The SACMEQ data for 14 sub-Saharan African countries is now available for download for anyone who registers on the SACMEQ website (it only takes 5 minutes). This is a tremendously rich dataset and I’d encourage anyone who is interested in the quality of education in Africa to download it and explore. For some background reading I’d recommend the following:

The economic value of matric and the potential of further education colleges [My Africa Check article]

See below for a copy of my article published on Africa Check on the 10th of January (see here).

africa check

By Nic Spaull | 10th January 2014 (GMT)

Aiming for 100% matric pass rate would be truly misguided, argues economics and education researcher Nic Spaull. Rather, we should look to Further Education and Training Colleges to play a key role in educating and providing meaningful employment to millions of South Africans.

The school-leaving matriculation exam is one of the characteristic features of the South African education system. It would be rare to find a single South African citizen who did not know what the matric exam is, or be able to explain why people think it is important.

On Monday this past week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that of the 560,000 full-time students that wrote matric in 2013, approximately 440,000 passed, yielding a pass rate of 78%. This was up from 74% in 2012.

But the statistic can be misleading since it completely ignores the 550,000 students that started school 12 years ago and then dropped out of the schooling system, mostly in Grade 10 and 11. To be specific, of every 100 students that started school 12 years ago, 51 made it to matric in 2013, 40 passed and only 16 qualified to go to university.

Matric and labour market prospects

Dropping out of school or failing matric has serious labour market consequences.

Given that there is no pre-matric qualification that is widely acknowledged or accepted, a student who does not reach, write and pass matric, will have no proof of their educational status. Employers will not accept school reports since these are not nationally standardised and are thus unreliable indicators of achievement.

This can be seen when looking at the data from the 2011 National Census. The unemployment rate for 25 to 35 year olds who have “less than matric” was 47% in 2011, much higher than those 25 to 35 year olds that had a matric (33%), a diploma or certificate (20%), and about six times higher than for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Clearly there are economic returns to passing matric, particularly because doing so provides access to further education and training which drastically improves one’s labour market prospects.

In addition to the labour-market importance of having a matric, it is also widely used by universities when determining who gets into what programs. However, many South African universities are now also using the results of the National Benchmarking Tests (NBTs) in their admissions criteria.

Assessing literacy and maths abilities of students

The NBTs were first introduced in 2005 by Higher Education South Africa as a way of assessing the extent to which students were ready for the academic demands of university courses. There are two NBTs, the first one is the Academic and Quantitative Literacy Test and the second is the Mathematics Test. Both tests are three hours in duration, written on the same day and are exclusively multiple-choice. They can be written at numerous times during the year.

Some courses require that students only write the Academic and Quantitative Literacy Test while others require that students write both tests. For example, if a student is applying to do engineering at the University of Cape Town, the matric results count for only half of their admissions points, with the Benchmarking Tests making up the other half.

In light of the above, you might think that the best outcome would be a 100% school retention rate and a 100% matric pass rate. That is both unattainable and undesirable. Such an approach ignores the potential value of an effective vocational education system or a pre-matric qualification that is a reliable indicator of achievement, both of which South Africa currently lacks.

Developing an effective vocational education system is necessary both for individuals whose talents, abilities and aptitudes are more suited to vocational careers, but also to fill the demand from industry for these professions. Even in advanced economies like the United States and the United Kingdom, the secondary school graduation rates are 77% and 87% respectively. One of the problems in South Africa is that there are few real options available to those who do not pass matric.

If we look at youths who do not hold a matric certificate, only 1% held some other non-Grade 12 school certificate of diploma issued by a Further Education and Training (FET) college for example.

Innovative thinking needed

Government’s National Development Plan (NDP) also highlights some of the other problems with the FET system: “Approximately 65 percent of college students are unable to find work experience, which is a requirement for completing National Technical Diplomas popularly known as N diplomas. The college sector is intended as a pathway for those who do not follow an academic path, but it suffers from a poor reputation due to the low rate of employment of college graduates.”

The problems inherent in a matric-or-nothing system are not going away anytime soon. The Department of Basic Education should begin to design and implement an externally evaluated Grade 9 exam and ensure that it does so in such a way that the exam has the trust and respect of the private sector and the public more generally.

While we certainly need to reduce grade repetition and dropout, to aim for universal matriculation would be truly misguided. The problems that face the vocational training sector in South Africa will only be solved with innovative thinking, experimentation and political will.

The aim of educating South Africa’s youth is to enable them to develop their talents and abilities and to lead the sorts of lives they have reason to value. To think that the only way to do this is through formal academic high school is short sighted and dismisses the potential for the FET sector to provide meaningful employment to millions of South Africa’s youth.

Nic Spaull is a researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. His blog about education research at and he can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull

- See more at:

Links I liked…

economist SA chart 20130713_gdc865

The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.’ This is how we came to own these United States. This is the legacy of manifest destiny.” 

ANA 2013 results don’t make sense

See below for the article I wrote for the M&G which appeared in the print edition  (13 Dec 2013) and is now available online here.

M&G 05 DEC 2013 19:20 NIC SPAULL

  • Annual literacy and numeracy tests for grades one, six and nine aren’t comparable over time or across grades, so talk of improvement is misleading.
Annual National Assessment results not comparable over time or across grades makes all talk about improvement or trends misleading. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

I have a love-hate relationship with the yearly publication of the national assessment results.On the one hand I am very proud of the annual national assessments and glad that we have them. Testing primary school children using standardised assessments is imperative to target support where it is needed and also to hold the basic education department and schools accountable. We definitely shouldn’t scrap them, since without them we would be stabbing in the dark.

On the other hand, I get depressed when the results are released because, given the way they are currently implemented, we actually are stabbing in the dark. For the national assessments to fulfil the function for which they were created, the results need to be comparable across grades, over time and between geographical locations. Unfortunately, given the sorry state of affairs that is the 2013 national assessment, none of these criteria are currently met.

The highlights version of last week’s release goes something like this: “Performance in grades one to three is adequate. Results for most grades show a steady increase. Grade nine performance is an unmitigated disaster.”

The unfortunate part is that the only statement I actually believe is the last one.

The reason is that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, presumably shocked to the core by the grade nine mathematics average of 14%, appointed a ministerial task team to assess whether the 2013 grade nine test was fair, valid and reliable. They concluded it was.

This result is in stark contrast with the much higher mathematics averages in grades one (60%), two (59%) and three (53%). If the minister had asked the task team to look into those tests as well, my suspicion is that it would have reached the opposite conclusion.

The reason I think this is that all the existing research in South Africa points to the fact that children are not acquiring the foundational numeracy and literacy skills in primary school and that this is the cause of underperformance in higher grades. The 2011 pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, for example, found that 29% of South African grade four students could not “locate and retrieve an explicitly stated detail” — that is, they were completely illiterate.

Yet in the assessment results, the home language average was 49% and the first additional language was 39% — higher than one would expect given previous grade-appropriate tests.

Likewise, the average score on the grade three national assessment numeracy test was 53%, up from 41% in 2012. Putting aside for a moment the fact that such gargantuan improvements have never been seen around the world — in any country, ever — the level is also way out.

The National School Effectiveness Study, published in 2011, found that grade three students scored an average of 29% on a grade three-level test. If South Africa improved at the fastest rate ever seen globally (which is 0.08 standard deviations a year), the score in 2013 would be about 38% in grade three — not the 53% Motshekga reported. These results don’t make sense.

Another peculiarity is the huge drop in mathematics performance between the relatively high grade six average of 39% and the depressingly low grade nine average of 14% only three grades later. From an educational assessment perspective, this is surely because the grade six test was much easier than the grade nine one, which, the task team established, was set at the appropriate level.

There are other possible reasons why the results in grades one, two and three are so high. One is that for grades one and two teachers were allowed to invigilate their own students during the test — which could obviously be problematic.

Another is that the grade three marks in unmonitored schools were significantly higher than those in the verification sample. In order to assess the fidelity of the administration, scoring and collating processes of the annual national assessments, 2 164 of the 24 355 schools were monitored by an external body. The exams from these schools were then marked and captured by an independent body.

The national unverified grade three literacy average was 51%, which was considerably higher than that found by the verification body, namely 42%.

But the report completely ignores these differences and rather focuses on the higher unverified scores, claiming that the verified scores are “not significantly different from the mean scores of pupils from the whole population” — something that is clearly untrue, as is evident from the report itself.

In some instances, the discrepancies are considerable. In the grade three literacy test, for example, the unverified provincial average for the Eastern Cape was 47% and for the Western Cape it was 50%.

This is in stark contrast with the true average found in the verification sample, which was 35% in the Eastern Cape and 49% in the Western Cape. And yet for some bizarre reason, the department decided to stick with the unverified marks for all grades and both subjects. There were also considerable discrepancies in the grade six and grade nine home language results.

Lastly, one simply cannot compare national assessment results over time. To do this, the tests would have to be calibrated and linked using psychometric analysis — something the department did not do. Last week’s national assessment report is somewhat bipolar on this point.

The report cautions: “The comparability of the tests from one year to the other cannot be guaranteed, which implies that comparability of the results from one year to the other may not be accurate.”

But these cautions did not seem to deter the minister, who said when releasing the results: “I am confident that performance in the education system is on an upward trend and all our interventions and programmes are beginning to produce the desired outcomes” — a confidence I, unfortunately, do not share.

Elsewhere the report says: “There is currently a strong emphasis on ensuring that tests from different years are comparable to each other, so that trends over years can be reliably monitored. In this regard a process is already under way.”

Is this meant to be reassuring? The fact that the process of ensuring psychometric comparability over time is “under way” is a half-baked admission that it was not ready or used for 2013, making any annual comparisons impossible.

Unfortunately, there is no technical report to confirm or deny this. Even without a technical report, the erratic and colossal changes occurring year on year are simply impossible.

In 2012, only 24% of grade six students had acceptable achievement (more than 50%) in the first additional language test — but this shot up to 41% in 2013 (a 71% increase) only one year later. By contrast, for grade nine students — only three grades later — the proportion achieving at an acceptable level came down from 21% in 2012 to 17% in 2013. Anyone familiar with educational assessments would balk at such large and inconsistent changes.

Many questions still remain unanswered. Who was the technical committee that advised the department on the national assessments of 2013? Why were their names not included in the report? What “process” of psychometric comparability is “under way” and where is the department in that process? Who was the “service provider” that verified the assessment results and why was it not listed, as the Human Sciences Research Council was in 2011?

One could also speak about the dangers of giving erroneous feedback to teachers or allocating resources based on faulty data — both of which are the spectres we will have to live with in the future. In testing seven million children the department has bitten off more than it can chew and, in the process, undermined its own technical credibility.

If we could trade ambition for competence, we may have a test that was actually telling us something clear instead of the muddled mess that is the national assessment for 2013. This testing must and should go on, but for heaven’s sake do it properly.

The eloquence of the fake signing man – Sarah Britten


I don’t repost other people’s articles often but this is too good not to – see Sarah Britten’s article on what the fake signing man says about SA politics below. Pritchett talks about this in his new book referring to it as isomorphic mimicry:

In our conversation, Lant unpacks the problems inherent in what he calls “isomorphic mimicry”: building institutions and processes in weak states that look like those found in functional states. “They pretend to do the reforms that look like the kind of reforms that successful [countries] do, but without their core underlying functionalities,” says Lant. “Instead, countries wind up with all the trappings of a capable system—institutions, agencies, and ministries—without its functionalities.” from here


The Eloquence of the Fake Signing Man – Sarah Britten

I won’t lie. A lot of this is bloody funny (read some of the best jokes about it here). The fake sign language interpreter is now a cultural phenomenon, featuring on major US comedy shows and catalysing a new meme.

And yet, at the heart of this, is a terrible sadness. I felt tremendous pity for Thamsanqa Jantjieas I watched him interviewed by Karyn Maughan on eNews. Here was a man cornered, desperate: a man who could see his world falling apart in front of his eyes.

A modern Walter Mitty, he was holding on for all he was worth to his sense of self. I am a man, he said. I am a provider. His wife brought out a blue dustbin bag filled with medication. She looked resigned.

Chutzpah, I had first thought. It turns out that all you need to get past the CIA and an entire phalanx of men straight out of The Matrix is magnificent incompetence. To fake it till you make it next to the leader of the hypocritically free world takes cojones. “I am proud to be South African” said Anton Taylor of Jozi shore.

But the story is so much more complicated. A mentally unstable man with a history of violent outbursts stood a metre away from the most powerful leaders in the world and passed himself off as an interpreter. This was Mr Bean goes to the UN — only it was very serious.

This is what he said. As it turned out, his gibberish spoke volumes.

In South Africa, the signing man told the world, you don’t actually have to know what you are doing in order to get a job. You don’t have to have any ability whatsoever, as long as it looks, to most, as though you can go through the motions — whether you are a teacher, a police officer, a bureaucrat, a government official or (as some have suggested) a state president.

There are those who see through you and complain, but they are ignored. Ours is not a culture of accountability. So one gig leads to the next. You’ve done it before so you get to do it again, because everyone in a position of power agrees that the emperor’s new threads are stylish. You stand there and tell us that the appearance of something becomes more important than the substance of it. Your obvious inability to do your job does not prevent you from getting ahead, until you reach the most prominent stage in the world, and then pretending suddenly isn’t enough. Too many people noticed — too many people who couldn’t just be dismissed because of their politics or race, which is how criticism is normally dealt with.

Thamsanqa discovered that eventually, somebody will see what you are doing, and call you out on it, and there will be nowhere to run. And you will be blamed, and the decision makers who allowed a smaller lie to metastasize into this awful mess will escape censure. Because in South Africa, nobody is ever held responsible — unless you’re low enough down the food chain and lack political connections. Then it’s all your fault.

In his desperate attempts to maintain a facade of functionality in front of the world, as he heard voices and saw angels, Thamsanqa Jantjie said more about the state of South Africa’s current rulers than all the analysts and spin doctors ever could.

He might not have been able to express a coherent word, but the fake signing man turned out to be remarkably eloquent.

Thank you Madiba for changing all the rules

thank you madiba

On the fifth of December 2013 Nelson Mandela died. He was the father of our country and the greatest man it has ever produced. While we all knew it was coming soon, the finality of death and the fact that his presence is no longer with us is truly saddening and has marked the beginning of a time of national mourning, remembrance and reflection. The picture above is a photo I took yesterday at Kirstenbosch Gardens at the Nelson Mandela sculpture which has become one of thousands of places around the country where people have laid cards and flowers in memory of our first democratic president.  This colorful card by Caleb  was such a gem: “Dear madiba I will miss you so much. thank you for changing all the rules, Love caleb.” It’s difficult to provide a better summary than this parsimonious account. Madiba really did change all the rules – the rules of apartheid, the rules of society and the rules of our country, yes, but also the rules we had allowed to govern ourselves – hatred, unforgiveness, discrimination and oppression. Madiba we will always love you. x

I still want to write a post about Madiba and what he means to me and what he represents to South Africa and the world but that will come later. Till then I really liked Maya Angelou’s tribute poem “His Day is Done” and Desmond Tutu’s tribute to Madiba. [Also this awesome flash mob tribute by the Soweto Gospel Choir in Woolies Parkview]


Links I liked…

  • Lant Pritchett on Education in Poor Countries” – an EconTalk podcast (64 min) I am definitely going to listen to. Pritchett is always good and Russ Roberts is an excellent interviewer.
  • Justin Sandefour summarises the findings from an important low-cost-private-school voucher intervention in Andra Pradesh (by Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman (o_O) whose full article is available here.
  • Great 2007 article by Deon Filmer: “Education inequalities around the world” – one of the brightest minds in the field. Really important reading.
  • M&G article summarising some of the (encouraging) findings arising from the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS)
  • My M&G article: “ANA results are not comparable” explaining why the ANA 2013 results are not comparable to previous ANAs or across grades. Banging the same old drum in the hopes that someone is listening!
  • New DBE reports now available online, including one on internal efficiencymacro indicators and the school monitoring survey
  • Interesting and disruptive innovation in Kenya – Bridge International Academy offers a school-in-a-box solution where teachers are trained for 7 weeks and offer scripted lessons in a highly structured and specified way. Most educationists will hate it but I just think to myself – what kind of education would these kids be receiving if they weren’t at these pop-up schools? Sometimes the counter-factual is far worse than even a below-average solution.
  • How to speak and write post-modern” – I must say I chortled more than a few times.
  • Interesting Economist article on Creationists and Science: “After they hit 18, half of evangelical youngsters lose their faith; entering a public university is especially perilous. As a generation, millennials (those born between the early 1980s and 2000s), are unimpressed by organised anything, let alone organised religion…Recent research (notably cross-species comparisons of gene sequences rendered non-functional by mutations) has greatly strengthened the case that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor. A creationist speaker in Baltimore shrugged such discoveries off, declaring that “science changes, but the word of God never changes.”
  • Very interesting – Kagame on RwandaOur thinking is based on people,” the tall, lean president tells This is Africa, from his hotel room on a recent trip to New York. “Investing in our people, what our people are capable of. In national budgets, we focus on education, health, we look at technology, skills, innovation, creativity. We are always thinking about people, people, people.” Rwanda looks to South Korea and Singapore, as well as developed countries, for lessons on “the way they managed their problems throughout history. And the central role played by people is very clear,” the president says. “We try to take all of that to our own needs and we have not been disappointed. You never go wrong by investing in people.
  • Pritchett quoting an Indian policy-makerYou guys from the World Bank say you want to help the government of India with our development agenda but then all you want to talk about is poverty, poverty, poverty. Let me point out two things. First, India is a democracy and hence to be the government at all we have to have 51 percent of the votes and we don’t have that many poor voters. Second, once we are the government of India we are the government of all Indians, not just the poor ones, so our agenda has to reflect the aspirations of all Indians. So either you are really helping us with our development agenda or you are just pushing yours.” Wow. Just wow.
  • Two South African education conferences in 2014 that are worth attending – SABEC (31 March JHB) – and SAERA (13 Aug DBN).

Why you can’t trust World Economic Forum education rankings


The following article should be appearing on the RESEP website sometime today.


WEF rankings on education unreliable

Each year the World Economic Forum releases its Global Competitiveness Report which aims to “assess the competitiveness landscape” and “provide insight into the drivers of their productivity and prosperity.” They furthermore claim that this report “remains the most comprehensive assessment of national competitiveness worldwide.” Included in the report is an indicator of education quality where South Africa performs extremely poorly (132 of 144).

 Much of the work conducted at RESEP focuses on education in South Africa, the quality of that education and the links between the schooling system and the labour market. Martin Gustafsson, one of the researchers at RESEP, has looked into the WEF rankings on education and discusses four salient features which explain why the WEF rankings on education are especially problematic.

    1. Understandably, the 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) has caused a stir in South Africa as, despite a relatively good overall competitiveness ranking (52 out of 144 countries), a few indicators related to government service delivery, in particular education, put the country amongst the worst in the world. Specifically, in terms of the ‘quality of primary education’ we are at position 132 out of 144, in terms of the net primary enrolment ratio we are at position 115, and in terms of ‘quality of the educational system’ we are at position 140. The 2012-2013 report does not really present anything new. The figures in the previous year’s report (for 2011-2012) are very similar.

 2.      With regard to the educational quality indicators, it is important to bear in mind that the WEF does not make use of any standardised testing system in producing its report. Instead, it makes use of an expert opinion approach. In the case of South Africa, six respondents, all from the business sector, are asked to rate the quality of education along a seven-point scale from very good to very poor. One would expect the South African respondents to rate the quality of South Africa’s schooling poorly for a number of reasons. One is that in South Africa we have good data on our educational quality relative to other countries. In particular, TIMSS 2003 placed South Africa last, with respect to Grade 8 mathematics and physical science, amongst the 20 developing countries that participated (the other African countries participating were Botswana, Egypt, Ghana and Morocco). However, there are around 150 developing countries in the world, many of which have very poor information on the quality of their education systems. One suspects that experts in these countries would not rate their educational quality too poorly as they simply do not have the required information. In SACMEQ 2007, South Africa came ninth out of 15 countries in Grade 6 mathematics. It is noteworthy that although Lesotho did considerably worse than South Africa in SACMEQ, its WEF ranking in the quality of primary schooling indicator is 120, against 132 for South Africa. This illustrates the problem with subjective data on a matter which is relatively amenable to measurement.

 3.      With regard to the primary enrolment ratio, it is important to note that UNESCO’s enrolment ratios (the data source for the WEF) are widely regarded as problematic and often not amenable to useful international comparisons due to the fact that UNESCO calculates its ratios using official enrolment totals and official population totals, in other words information from very different data sources. In many developing countries there are strange discrepancies between the two sets of data. The problem for South Africa is that this discrepancy works in the reverse direction compared to most other developing countries. In South Africa, total population figures for children are simply too high compared to the enrolment totals. In most developing countries, the problem is that enrolment totals are inflated. South Africa’s enrolment ratios in the UNESCO reports appear to be relatively poor, but this means nothing and has confused a lot of people. Enrolment ratios derived from household surveys are a lot more reliable and these indicate that South Africa’s enrolment ratios, at least at the primary and secondary levels, are good by international standards. There is an abundance of literature that shows this. The WEF report itself points to the strangeness of the enrolment ratios it uses. According to the report, at the primary level our enrolment ratio is ranked position 115, but at the secondary level it is ranked 53. This raises an obvious question: How can enrolments at the secondary level be relatively good when at the primary level they are poor, yet the former depends on the latter.

 4.      Lastly, World Bank reports now identify 201 countries in the world.

 Part of Martin’s PhD research involved developing a method to compare the performance of countries on different (sometimes non-overlapping) international assessments of educational achievement. His 2012 Working Paper “More countries, similar results. A nonlinear programming approach to normalising test scores needed for growth regressions” can be found here.

School Monitoring Survey 2011 (aka Depression laced with hope)

school monitoring survey

The Department of Basic Education has recently released the report on the School Monitoring Survey of 2011 which surveyed 2000 public ordinary schools with the aim of monitoring progress towards the goals set out in the Action Plan to 2014. Let me warn you that it makes for depressing reading – even for those familiar with how bad things really are. Really. While the results are truly atrocious/shocking/abysmal (we are running out of adjectives to accurately describe the South African schooling system) there is one ray of hope that comes from all of this. It’s not so much the contents of the report – the only thing hopeful in the report are the school feeding stats! – but rather the fact that the report itself was commissioned (surprise #1) and then that it was actually released (massive surprise #2). If we try and walk in the DBE’s moccasins for three days, as the Native American saying on empathy goes, we would realize that this takes commitment, resolve and leadership. To commission a survey that will certainly reveal damning information, but information that is necessary for improvement, is the first step. But to realize that public discussion, transparency and accountability are all integral parts of democracy and progress is something else altogether. That is truly and honestly something to celebrate and a big break with the denialism of previous Ministers of Education. Kudos to those involved! But before you crack out the champagne read the bulleted summary of the report below. Actually, mid-day drinking is probably the most rational response to findings like these…        

  1. Only 69% of schools had all allocated teaching posts filled (highest in the Northern Cape: 78%, lowest in the North West: 58%).
  2. Of the 60 hours of annual professional development that teachers should have done by the time of the survey, the South African average was only 38 hours (Western Cape: 60 hours, Limpopo: 30 hours).
  3. Percentage of educators absent from school on an average day was 6% nationally, 8% in KwaZulu-Natal and 3% in the Western Cape.
  4. Of Grade 6 learners nationally, only 7% had done at least 4 exercises per week (the minimum standard) for language and 31% for Maths. Of Grade 9 learners nationally, only 1% met this requirement for language and 6% for Maths.
  5. Of Grade 6 learners nationally 83% had access to a Maths textbook and 78% had access to a Language textbook. For Grade 9 the figures were 83% for a Maths textbook and 68% for a Language textbook.
  6. Only 57% of students in South Africa were in a school that had either a central school library, a mobile library or a classroom library (Western Cape: 89%, Limpopo: 30%)
  7. Only 48% of schools had a School Governing Body that met the minimum criteria for effectiveness.
  8. Schools receive different per-learner subsidies from the State depending on if they are from the poorest 20% (Quintile 1), the second Poorest 20% (Quintile 2) etc. Quintile 1 learners get allocated R905 while Quintile 5 (richest 20%) get R156. Nationally 47% of students were in schools that were funded according to the minimum level (Western Cape: 95%; Mpumalanga: 10%).
  9. Only 55% of schools have minimum infrastructure needs (Gauteng: 90%; Eastern Cape 33%). Minimum infrastructure needs are defined as having running water, working electricity, fenced school premises, separate toilets for boys and girls, and separate toilets for teachers.
  10. 86% of south Africa learners received a free school meal every day (Western Cape & KZN: 81%; Limpopo: 94%). In Quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools, 96, 95 and 91% respectively were found to have a National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP).
  11. 87% of schools were visited at least twice a year by a district official for monitoring or support purposes during the year (Western Cape: 99%; Eastern Cape: 74%).
  12. Only 34% of principals rated 50% of more of the district support services as satisfactory (Gauteng/Western cape: 63%; Eastern Cape: 24%).

 When we think of what these kind of findings mean for things like social mobility, chronic poverty and the personal dignity of the poor and marginalized it would seem the only reactions are anger and despair.  God help us.

Seeing things as they are

see things


  • Carol Paton writes a helpful summary of some of the findings from the NSES book “Creating Effective Schools.” Read it if you consider yourself informed about SA education. Take the “What are policy-makers doing?” things with a pinch of salt – I don’t have time to go into why some of those ‘remedies’ or ‘responses’ aren’t as impressive as they sound. Some are legit though :)
  • Crazy hectic typhoon hit the Philippines – before/after GIF showing just how much devastation there was. So sad.
  • After watching this TED talk I am more convinced than ever that I am a 100% feminist. Actually 110%. If you’ve never done a course on gender or even thought about it, watch this 30min talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – she is humorous, insightful and eloquent, proclaiming what will be such an obvious truth in the future – that we should all be feminists.
  • How much is a professor worth? – NYT article comparing the relative salaries (in PPP) across the world (SA ranks pretty high :) – via Johan Fourie
  • Concise M&G article on the state of learning deficits in South African education – “Too little, too late condemns pupils” by @Victoria_JohnMG – nice article about part of my CDE report.
  • A few weeks ago I got my first experience of live television as part of CNBC Africa’s panel discussing education in South Africa – see here. I could get used to this #JustSayin
  • The paper I wrote with Stephen Taylor for Save The Children is now available online: Trends in Effective Enrolment: Measuring Access and Basic-Quality Improvements in Education for Nine African Countries 2000-2007 (perhaps we should’ve thought of a more concise title?!)
  • Got a cool idea for social change through education and technology? Shuttleworth Foundation fellowships are now open (deadline 1 May 2014)

Links for your perusal…

_be yourself

  • A couple of cool TED talks which are worth watching:
  • Whites must make sacrifices to uplift SAs poor Thought-provoking and sobering interview with Stellenbosch Emeritus Professor Sampie Terreblanche on the state of South Africa’s unequal society, the dodgy dealings between the ANC and white-business around the time of the transition and what needs to be done to fix the situation. The status quo is not OK.
  • Damning CHE report into university performance‘ – M&G article
  • Some cool new technology/education links:
    • BioDigital Human – an interactive free web app that visualizes the human body in all its complexity. The future of biology education and medical training :)
    • Google Make – Think of this as Google meets Mythbusters meets STEM education. Videos about how to make moulds, build circuits and do all the cool things that kids (and adults) love to do.
    • NewsCorp’s Amplify Tablet – 3 minute video showing what the future of digitized education might look like. How exciting :)
  • “Understanding comes with the mixture of knowledge and experience…start to handle the world as you handle your country and your community” – Great 5 minute video with Hans Rosling.
  • Pictures tell stories that words can only hint at…inequality as seen through children’s bedrooms: Where children sleep
  • Super useful matrix of SABER reports by the World Bank showing in one table all the education reports for all the countries. Brief reports on EMIS, Accountability, Teachers etc
  • Report on Teacher Quality from the 2013 International Summit on the Teaching Profession
  •  Quote of the week: “The increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ (‘this is your duty as an American’, ‘you must commit these acts as a Muslim’, or ‘as a Chinese you should give priority to this national engagement’) is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups (to all of which he or she belongs).” ― Amartya SenThe Idea Of Justice

Teachers cannot teach what they do not know (my Sunday Times article)

Salon interview with Eric Topol, author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care,”

Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know – Nic Spaull

[A shortened version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on the 18th of August 2013. The current version was also published on Politicsweb - see here]

The fact that there is an on-going crisis in South African education isn’t a particularly new revelation. An objective outsider would have to conclude that the weight of available evidence is heavily stacked in favour of the judgement that our education system is in a dire state. Whether one chooses to use local or international assessments, the picture that emerges is the same – thousands of South African schools that are academically bankrupt. By this I mean schools where there is practically no learning taking place during the year.

 Some may protest that such statements are too harsh, but even a cursory analysis of the data would suggest otherwise. For example, one question in the National School Effectiveness Study (2010) showed Grade 5 South African students a picture of three grocery items with three prices attached to them and asked students “How much will these items cost altogether?” (the prices were R5,10; R4,20 and R1,30). Even though this is a Grade 2 level question, 70% of quintile one, two and three students in Grade 5 could not answer it correctly. After at least 500 hours of scheduled mathematics instruction, most Grade 5 students still did not have basic fluency in arithmetic. This is verified by a number of other items and different assessments. How is it possible that the majority of Grade 5 South African students are actually operating at a Grade 2 level?

 An increasingly popular response to that question in academic circles is that too many South African primary school maths teachers have very low levels of content knowledge themselves. One does not really need to explain why this is a fundamental problem: teachers cannot teach what they do not know.

 It is perhaps helpful to provide a few examples of what Grade 6 mathematics teachers in South Africa know relative to teachers in other African countries. The Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) 2007 tested a nationally representative sample of Grade 6 students and also tested their teachers (a sample of 401 Grade 6 mathematics teachers in South Africa) (Moloi & Chetty, 2011). Question 6 of the SACMEQ Grade 6 mathematics teacher test asks teachers to calculate the following sum:


The correct answer is “d”. This is an application of the Brackets-Orders-Divide-Multiply-Add-Subtract (BODMAS) rule for choosing the order in which to perform operations. This is part of the Grade 6 curriculum. However, only 46% of Grade 6 maths teachers in South Africa could answer this correctly, and in the Eastern Cape only 30% of Grade 6 maths teachers could answer this correctly.  This is only marginally above what teachers would get if they just guessed the answer, since they would get it right 25% of the time on a four-choice test item. Unsurprisingly, only 22% of Grade 6 students in South Africa can answer this correctly – equivalent to random guessing.

Enni The correct answer is “c”. This question is well within the Grade 6 maths curriculum, yet only 33% of the South African Grade 6 maths teachers could answer it correctly. Again only slightly better than guessing. In contrast, 82% of Kenyan Grade 6 maths teachers and 64% of Tanzanian Grade 6 maths teachers could answer it correctly. In fact, given that this question was also asked in a previous international student assessment (TIMSS 1995) we also know how Grade 8 students from around the world performed on this question. While an astonishingly low 16% of South African Grade 8 students could answer this question correctly, 87% of Korean Grade 8 students and 95% of Singaporean Grade 8 students could answer it correctly. That is to say that the average 14 year old child in Singapore or Korea would perform better on this item than the average Grade 6 maths teacher in South Africa. In fact, of the 16 questions that were common to both the Grade 6 maths teacher test (SACMEQ 2007) and the Grade 8 student test (TIMSS 1995), South African teachers only scored 30% correct after adjusting for guessing. The figure for Kenyan Grade 6 maths teachers is 72% and for Singaporean Grade 8 students it is 71% (both also adjusted for guessing).

 Looking at two other questions from the test (question 21 and 25) further reveal how low South African mathematics teacher content knowledge really is.



Unsurprisingly, the international report on the SACMEQ study states that only 32% of Grade 6 maths teachers in South Africa had desirable subject knowledge in mathematics (Hungi, et al., 2011, p. 52). This is in stark contrast to many other African countries with much higher proportions of maths teachers with desirable levels of content knowledge, for example: Kenya (90%), Zimbabwe (76%) and Swaziland (55%). The situation is also highly variable by province in South Africa with Mpumalanga having almost no maths teachers with desirable content knowledge (4%). The figure for the Eastern Cape is 17%, Gauteng is 41% and the Western Cape is 64%. Yet the South African SACMEQ report written by the Department of Basic Education does not discuss these very low levels of maths content knowledge. It is unclear why the Department has not already identified this as a major priority and taken decisive action. The evidence base is large, consistent and unambiguous. Whether it is small qualitative studies or large nationally representative surveys, the results are the same: too many South African teachers have shockingly low levels of mathematics content knowledge.

It should be noted that teachers should not be blamed for this situation since they are the victims of inadequate apartheid-era training and ineffective post-apartheid in-service teacher training. Post-apartheid in-service teacher training has not worked because there is too little transfer from training to classroom practice. Unless training influences the forms of teaching and learning that happen in the classroom, there is little reason to believe it should increase student learning. Teachers in academically bankrupt schools need to be tested to identify content knowledge gaps and then given high quality training and support that has been proven to work. It is one of the scandals of higher education that after almost two decades of democracy our education faculties have not managed to create an in-service training program that has been rigorously evaluated and proven to raise teacher content knowledge. As an aside, one must remember that content knowledge is a necessary, but by no means sufficient condition for improving student learning – teachers also need to be able to convey that knowledge. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that teachers need a thorough mastery of the mathematics several grades beyond that which they are expected to teach.  The longer it takes to provide teachers with high quality training (which has been proven to work) the longer the children in their care will remain illiterate and innumerate. When maths teachers have such low levels of content knowledge, should we really be surprised when there is virtually no learning taking place in these schools?


 Hungi, N., Makuwa, D., Ross, K., Saito, M., Dolata, S., van Capelle, F., et al. (2010). SACMEQ III Levels and Trends in School Resources. Paris: Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality.

 Moloi, M., & Chetty, M. (2011). The SACMEQ III Project in South Africa: A Study of the Conditions of Schooling and the Quality of Education. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.

 Taylor, N., & Taylor, S. (2013). Teacher knowledge and professional habitus. In N. Taylor, S. Van der Berg, & T. Mabogoane, What makes schools effective? Report of the National Schools Effectiveness Study (pp. 202-232). Cape Town: Pearson Education South Africa.

 Taylor, N., Van der Berg, S., & Mabogoane, T. (2013). What makes schools effective? Report of the National Schools Effectiveness Study. Cape Town: Pearson.

Make Wikipedia free on cellphones


I wrote an open letter to the CEO’s of Vodacom, MTN and Cell-C asking them to make Wikipedia free on cellphones. You can find the article on the Sowetan website HERE. I include the full letter below…sharing is caring so feel free to spread far and wide…hopefully the right people see it and realize the power they have to effortlessly improve the education of millions of children. You can also like this FB page.

“THIS Youth Day, three companies have the power to change the lives of 12 million South African children with the stroke of a pen.

This may sound like the usual political rhetoric around Youth Day, but I assure you, this is probably the most tangible opportunity of 2013. The idea is simple: provide mobile access to Wikipedia free of data charges. It isn’t complicated or glamorous, but it would put the world’s knowledge in the hands of millions of South African youths, especially those without libraries or computers. “What is chlorophyll?”; “Who was Seretse Khama?”; “Where are the Canary Islands?” – four million articles on absolutely everything, all accessible through a cellphone.

So, if your name is Shameel Joosub (CEO of Vodacom), Sifiso Dabengwa (CEO of MTN), or Allan Knott-Craig (CEO of Cell-C) this could be one of the best (and most satisfying) decisions of your life. Listen to the Wikimedia Foundation or listen to the under-resourced Sinenjongo High School who have explicitly asked for free access to Wikipedia – if all else fails then listen to reason. The world is evolving in an increasingly digital way and encouraging cellphone use in education is just plain business sense. One need not remind you that these are your future customers and employees. There really isn’t a legitimate reason why not to. We already know it’s possible since British mobile operator Orange currently provides access to Wikipedia for free on its network in 20 countries across Africa and the Middle East, including Kenya, Uganda, Egypt and Tunisia.

So why not in South Africa?

I can’t imagine that the data revenues from South Africans accessing the (primarily text-based) Wikipedia Mobile are anything that would affect the bottom line, and anyway, these miniscule losses couldn’t hold a flame to the positive public relations and social capital from such an important policy. This kind of project is the very definition of corporate social investment. It was only last month that Vodacom announced a yearly net profit of R13-billion, up 23% from the previous year. This is great news for the company, employment and the economy. Making access to Wikipedia free is a drop in the ocean for these companies, but opens the world of knowledge to millions of South African children, who are themselves future customers and employees.

Perhaps the case isn’t compelling enough. So let’s look at some cold hard facts. Less than 20% of South African schools have a library or a computer centre. Where are pupils meant to go if they don’t know something?Of 100 pupils that start grade 1, only 50 will make it to matric, 40 will pass and 12 will qualify for university. Only 13% of schools have any access to the internet. If one excludes Gauteng and the Western Cape that figure plummets to 5%.The majority of pupils in South Africa come from resource-poor homes with almost no access to information. On top of this, most pupils are learning in their second language – frequently coming across concepts and words they don’t understand, what are they meant to do?All of these statistics are in stark contrast to the ubiquitous presence of cellphones in the country, with cellphone penetration reaching 98% this year.

In a 2010 research study, World Wide Worx estimated that 65% of urban cellphone users have the capacity to access the internet, with this figure likely to be even higher for the youth. This really is a hugely untapped resource.If one thinks of the enormous benefits of this easy-to-implement plan and the fact that other mobile phone companies have successfully implemented it in other African countries we need to ask; why can’t this be done in South Africa?

Vodacom, MTN and Cell-C control 99% of the mobile phone business in South Africa and with a stroke of a pen they could help change the educational landscape of the country. This is an idea whose time has come.So Mr Joosub, Mr Dabengwa and Mr Knott-Craig, what are you waiting for? Pick up your pen and change the lives of 12 million South African children.