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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Special issue of SA Journal of Early Childhood Education: Call for abstracts

call for abstracts

The relatively new open-access SA Journal of Childhood Education has recently put out a call for abstracts (see below) for their special issue on “Priorities and policy-making in South African Education” (Guest editors: Nick Taylor and Thabo Mabogoane). Given the policy relevance of this special issue, researchers at ReSEP (including myself) will be submitting a number of abstracts for work we are currently doing and intend to do. If you’re doing work in this field I’d encourage you to do the same, it’s likely to be a great issue!


Special issue: Call for Papers “Priorities and Policy-making in South African Education”

 Guest editors: Nick Taylor and Thabo Mabogoa

Despite considerable expenditures and efforts to improve performance and reduce inequality, there is limited evidence of substantial improvements in educational outcomes, or the equalisation thereof. Periodic reviews of the evidence have shown a number of recurring themes that are especially characteristic of schooling in South Africa. These include unequal access to socially, emotionally and cognitively stimulating environments (both in the home and at school), insufficient resources, low levels of curriculum coverage, low levels of teacher content knowledge, inadequate support and training opportunities for in-service teachers, challenges associated with learning and teaching in a second language, low levels of accountability and high dropout in upper secondary school (among many others).

While education officials are often aware of these challenges, most policy-makers find it difficult to synthesise this evidence, which is necessary for prioritisation and resource allocation. Making sense from research is particularly challenging  when it is presented in isolation from other problem areas and only speaks to other research within its ‘silo’.  It is now widely acknowledged that if government policies are to have the largest possible impact, they need to be based on rigorous evidence and peer-reviewed research. Furthermore the National Development Plan (the government’s guiding framework) has emphasised the need for the “process of prioritisation and sequencing” if the plan is to be implemented. Such a process of prioritisation and sequencing requires rich, inter-connected evidence on education in South Africa.

Consequently, this call for papers focuses on education research in South Africa that speaks directly to policy-making and prioritisation. Papers that synthesise existing evidence across research areas in education are especially welcome.

Instructions for authors:

Journal administrator:

Online submissions and author registration:

Deadline for abstract submission: 31 March 2015
Deadline for full papers (of accepted abstracts): 30 June 2015
Intended publication date: November 2015

The SAJCE is accredited by the Department of Higher Education and Training and  has applied, through the Academy of Science of South Africa  (ASSAF) for listing  on the open journals platform, ScIELO 

Starting Behind and Staying Behind: Insurmountable learning deficits in mathematics (new Working Paper)

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A Working Paper that I co-wrote with Janeli Kotze was released today on the Stellenbosch Economic Working Paper site (available here). The paper has also been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Educational Development and should be out next year. I will include some excerpts from the paper for those who’d prefer the short version…


This study quantifies a year’s worth of mathematics learning in South Africa (0.3 standard deviations) and uses this measure to develop empirically-calibrated learning trajectories. Two main findings are, (1) only the top 16% of South African Grade 3 children are performing at an appropriate Grade 3 level. (2) The learning gap between the poorest 60% of students and the wealthiest 20% of students is approximately three Grade-levels in Grade 3, growing to four Grade-levels by Grade 9. The paper concludes by arguing that the later in life we attempt to repair early learning deficits in mathematics, the costlier the remediation becomes.


Few would argue that the state of mathematics education in South Africa is something other than dire. This belief is widespread among academic researchers and those in civil society, and is also strongly supported by a host of local and international assessments of mathematical achievement extending back to at least 1995 (Howie & Hughes, 1998; Reddy, 2006; Fleisch, 2008; Spaull, 2013; Taylor et al., 2013). Many of these studies, and particularly those that focus on mathematics, have identified that students acquire learning deficits early on in their schooling careers and that these backlogs are the root cause of underperformance in later years. They argue that any attempts to raise students’ mathematical proficiency must first address these deficits if they are to be successful (Taylor et al., 2003). The present study adds further evidence to this body of work by using nationally representative data to provide some indication of the true size and scope of these learning deficits.

In South Africa, research in this area has generally focussed on in-depth localized studies of student workbooks and classroom observation (Ensor et al., 2009). For some examples, Carnoy et al. (2012) observe mathematics learning in Grade 6 classrooms from 60 schools in one South African province (North West) and compare these classrooms to 60 schools in neighbouring Botswana. On a smaller scale, Venkat & Naidoo (2012) focus on 10 primary schools in Gauteng and analyse coherence for conceptual learning in a Grade 2 numeracy lesson. Similarly Schollar (2008) conducted interviews and classroom observations as well as analysed a large sample of learner scripts to determine the development (or lack thereof) of mathematical concepts through the Grades.

Where the present research differs from these earlier studies is that it focuses on quantifying national learning deficits in general, rather than in specific learning areas. While the latter are essential for understanding what the problems are and how to fix them, analyses at the national level are also needed if we are to understand the extent and distribution of the problem, both of which are imperative for policy-making purposes. This is only possible by analysing multiple nationally-representative surveys of student achievement, which is the focus of the present study. The two core research questions that animate this study are as follows:

  • How large are learning deficits in South Africa and how are they distributed in the student population?
  • Do learning deficits grow, shrink or remain unchanged as students progress to higher Grades?

To answer these questions we analyse four nationally representative datasets of mathematics achievement, namely: (1) the Systemic Evaluation 2007 (Grade 3), (2) the National School Effectiveness Study 2007/8/9 (Grade 3, 4 and 5), (3) the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) 2007 (Grade 6), (4) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 (Grade 9).

The extant research on mathematics learning in South Africa strongly supports this conclusion with numerous researchers highlighting the inadequate acquisition of basic skills and the consequent negative effects on further learning. Taylor & Vinjevold (1999) summarise the findings from 54 studies[1] commissioned by the President’s Education Initiative and conclude that:

“At all levels investigated by [The President’s Education Initiative], the conceptual knowledge of students is well below that expected at the respective Grades. Furthermore, because students are infrequently required to engage with tasks at any but the most elementary cognitive level, the development of higher order skills is stunted” (Taylor & Vinjevold, 1999, p. 231).

This lack of engagement with higher order content is the prime focus of Reeves and Muller’s (2005) analysis of Opportunity-to-Learn (OTL) and mathematics achievement in South Africa, where OTL is the curriculum actually made available to learners in the classroom. Taylor et al. (2003, p. 129) in their book Getting Schools Working summarise succinctly the debilitating effects of cumulative learning deficits:

“At the end of the Foundation Phase [Grades 1-3], learners have only a rudimentary grasp of the principles of reading and writing … it is very hard for learners to make up this cumulative deficit in later years … particularly in those subjects that … [have] vertical demarcation requirements (especially mathematics and science), the sequence, pacing, progression and coverage requirements of the high school curriculum make it virtually impossible for learners who have been disadvantaged by their early schooling to ‘catch-up’ later sufficiently to do themselves justice at the high school exit level.’

And lastly, Schollar (2008) summarises the findings of the Primary Mathematics Research Project which looked at over 7000 learners from 154 schools in South Africa and concludes as follows:

“Phase I concluded that the fundamental cause of poor learner performance across our education system was a failure to extend the ability of learners from counting to true calculating in their primary schooling. All more complex mathematics depends, in the first instance, on an instinctive understanding of place value within the base-10 number system, combined with an ability to readily perform basic calculations and see numeric relationships … Learners are routinely promoted from one Grade to the next without having mastered the content and foundational competences of preceding Grades, resulting in a large cognitive backlog that progressively inhibits the acquisition of more complex competencies. The consequence is that every class has become, in effect, a ‘multi-Grade’ class in which there is a very large range of learner abilities and this makes it very difficult, or even impossible, to consistently teach to the required assessment standards for any particular Grade. Mathematics, however, is an hierarchical subject in which the development of increasingly complex cognitive abilities at each succeeding level is dependent on the progressive and cumulative mastery of its conceptual frameworks, starting with the absolutely fundamental basics of place value (the base-10 number system) and the four operations (calculation)” (Schollar, 2008, p. 1).

To provide an alternative measure of performance, we provide two examples of no-language items in NSES and show when students answer the question correctly – i.e. in Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5 or not by the end of Grade 5. Given that one needs to follow the same students from Grade 3 to 5 we limit the sample here to the panel sample of NSES students (8383 students). Figure 3 below shows a simple question testing two and three digit addition with no carrying. This is within the Grade 3 curriculum which states that students should be able to “perform calculations using the appropriate symbols to solve problems involving addition of whole numbers with at least three digits.” Although this is a Grade 3 level item and contains no language content, only 20% of Quintile 1-4 students could answer this correctly in Grade 3, with the proportion in Quintile 5 being twice as high (42%) but still low. While there is evidently some learning taking place in Grade 4 and 5, more than 40% of Quintile 1-4 children still could not answer this Grade 3 level problem at the end of Grade 5. In Quintile 5 this figure was only 22%.

Figure 3

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Figure 4 below shows a similar situation where the vast majority of Grade 3 children cannot answer this Grade 3 level problem. While some children learn the skill in Grade 4 or 5, the majority of children still cannot answer this problem at the end of Grade 5, despite it being set at the Grade 3 level.

Figure 4

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 Moving from learning deficits to learning trajectories

While the previous sections have identified the proportion of students that are not operating at a Grade 3 level, they do not provide much guidance in terms of learning trajectories into later Grades. The figures above show that some students are only learning part of the Grade 3 curriculum in either Grade 4 or Grade 5 and that many never seem to acquire these skills. However one cannot say to what extent they are also acquiring Grade 4 level skills in Grade 4 and Grade 5 level skills in Grade 5, although this is unlikely. This is because the NSES test was set at a Grade 3 level with only a small number of questions set at the Grade 4 level. One could use SACMEQ (Grade 6) and TIMSS (Grade 9) as measures of mathematical proficiency at higher levels, but these tests are not calibrated to be comparable to each other, or to earlier tests like the NSES. This is problematic since learning trajectories require data points distributed across the full range of educational phases which are comparable to each other both in terms of the content tested and the difficulty level of the tests. One alternative method to partially overcome the lack of inter-survey comparability is to measure the size of learning deficits in each data set using intra-survey benchmarks.

Applying the above method we calculate the difference in average achievement between Quintiles 1 (poorest 20% of students) and quintile 5 (wealthiest 20% of students) for the different surveys and then convert these into a common standard-deviation metric. The difference between quintiles 1 and 5 is 28 percentage points in NSES Grade 3, 130 SACMEQ points in Grade 6, and 122 TIMSS points in Grade 9. These different metrics are not directly comparable and there is no simple way of equating the scores. Consequently we convert the differences into within-survey standard deviations and then, using the 0.3 standard deviation benchmark as one year of learning, one can say that this difference was equal to 4 Grade-levels in Grade 3[1] (NSES), 4.4 Grade-levels in Grade 6 (SACMEQ) and 4.7 Grade-levels in Grade 9 (TIMSS).

Lewin (2007) provides a useful conceptual model for the trajectory needed to reach a particular goal – in this case matric (Grade 12). He refers to an ‘on-track-line’ and an ‘off-track-line’ where the off-track-line is any line below the on-track-line. In the present example, the on-track-line is calibrated to be equal to the average performance of Quintile 5 students.

To illustrate the above in a graph, we set the average Quintile 5 achievement to be equal to the Grade-appropriate benchmark such that the learning trajectory of these students are on the “on-track” trajectory and will reach matric (Grade 12) performing at roughly a Grade 12 level. We then calculate the difference between this ‘benchmark performance’ and the average performance of Quintiles 1, 2, 3 and 4 and then convert this difference into Grade-level equivalents using 0.3 standard deviations as equal to one Grade-level of learning. In doing so, we essentially create a learning trajectory spanning from Grade 3 (NSES) to Grade 9 (TIMSS) with linear projections for those Grades where we do not have data (Grade 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12). The exact figures for all calculations are provided in the online appendix. Figure 6 below shows the likely learning trajectories of the average student in each quintile of student socioeconomic status.

Figure 6 shows that the average student in Quintile 1, 2 and 3 is functioning at approximately three Grade-levels lower than the Quintile 5 benchmark in Grades 3, 4, 5 and 6. Observing average performance by quintile in Grade 9 shows that the difference between Quintile 1, 2 and 3 students and Quintile 5 students (the benchmark) has now grown to more than four Grade-levels. If it is assumed that Quintile 5 students in Grade 9 are functioning at roughly a Grade 9 level, then Quintile 1 and 2 students are functioning at roughly a Grade 4.5 level in Grade 9. The trajectory lines, one for Quintile 5 and one for the average of Quintiles 1-4, show that in Grade 3 there already exist large differences in performance (approximately three Grade-levels) and that by the time children enter Grade 9 this gap in performance has grown to about four Grade-levels. The linear trend in performance between these two groups suggests that if the same number of students in Quintiles 1-4 in Grade 9 continued in schooling until Grade 12 (i.e. no drop out between these two periods) they would be functioning at approximately 4.9 Grade levels lower than their Quintile 5 counterparts in Grade 12 (1.5 standard deviations lower).

Figure 6

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Returning to Lewin’s (2007) notion of an “on-track” progress line, perhaps the most important conclusion arising from this conceptual framework is that any performance below the “on-track” line creates an increasing gradient of expectation as the pupil moves into higher grades. This expectation is what is required by the curriculum to reach the goal (passing the grade 12 exam, for example) relative to where the student is at the present. As students’ learning deficits grow, the gradient of what needs to be achieved to reach the goal then progressively steepens to the point where it enters what Lewin (2007, p. 7) refers to as a ‘Zone of Improbable Progress.’ For example, the improvement that is required to bring the average Grade 9 Quintile 1 student in South Africa up to the required benchmark by Grade 12 is unrealistic given that they are performing at roughly a Grade 5 level in Grade 9. By contrast, the gradient of achievement required to bring the average Quintile 1 Grade 3 pupil up to the required benchmark by matric is slightly more manageable. The clear conclusion arising from this analysis is that intervening early to correct and prevent learning deficits is the only sustainable approach to raising average achievement in under-performing schools.

What we would add to this conclusion is that the root cause of these weak educational outcomes is that children are acquiring debilitating learning deficits early on in their schooling careers and that these remain with them as they progress through school. Because they do not master elementary numeracy and literacy skills in the foundation and intermediate phases, they are precluded from further learning and engaging fully with the Grade-appropriate curriculum, in spite of being enrolled in school. Lewin (2007, p. 10) refers to these children as ‘silently excluded’ since they are enrolled and attending school but learning little. Importantly, these children are precluded from further learning, not because of any inherent deficiency in their abilities or aptitudes, but rather because of the systematic and widespread failure of the South African education system to offer these students sustained and meaningful learning opportunities. Indeed, many children from poorer backgrounds have both the ability and the desire to succeed, and when provided with meaningful learning and remediation opportunities, do in fact succeed (see Spaull et al, 2012 for an example).

The clear policy recommendation which proceeds from these findings confirms what is becoming increasingly accepted, that any intervention to improve learning in South Africa needs to intervene as early as possible. Given South Africa’s egregiously high levels of inequality, it should come as no surprise that poor children in South Africa find themselves at a nexus of disadvantage, experiencing a lack of social, emotional and cognitive stimulation in early childhood. These children then enter a primary school system that is unable to equip them with the skills needed to succeed in life, let alone to remediate the large learning deficits they have already accumulated to date.

When faced with limited resources and a choice of where to intervene in the schooling system, the counsel from both the local and international literatures is unequivocal; the earlier the better. The need to focus on the primary Grades, and especially the pre-primary years, is not only driven by the fact that underperformance is so widespread in these phases, but also because remediation is most possible and most cost-effective when children are still young (Heckman, 2000). Due to the cumulative negative effects of learning deficits – particularly for vertically-integrated subjects like mathematics – it is not usually possible to fully remediate pupils if the intervention is too late (i.e. in high school), as too many South African interventions are. Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman summarises the above succinctly when he explains that:

“Policies that seek to remedy deficits incurred in early years are much more costly than early investments wisely made, and do not restore lost capacities even when large costs are incurred. The later in life we attempt to repair early deficits, the costlier the remediation becomes” (Heckman, 2000, p. 5).

Full paper available here.

Matric markers STILL not tested – my 2014 rant

matric markers pic

Every year for the past four years the department of basic education has tried — unsuccessfully — to implement competency tests for matric markers. Each year the teacher unions derail these well-intentioned plans, with the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) raising the biggest ruckus.

The department’s logic is flawless: the integrity of the marking and moderation procedures of the National Senior Certificate exam depends crucially on the ability of markers to assess student responses accurately. Furthermore, without directly testing the content knowledge and marking competency of teachers one cannot be sure that the quality of matric markers is such that matric pupils receive the marks they deserve.

Importantly, the tests the department proposes would be conducted in a confidential, dignified and equitable manner that would not undermine the professionalism of applicants.

Sadtu counters that all teachers are equally capable of marking the matric exams and thus there is no need for minimum competency tests for prospective markers. This flies in the face of everything we know about teachers’ content knowledge and the pedagogical skills of large parts of the South African education system.

In a 1999 book, Getting Learning Right, Penny Vinjevold and Nick Taylor summarised the results of 54 studies commissioned by the Joint Education Trust, and wrote: “The most definite point of convergence across the President’s Education Initiative studies is the conclusion that teachers’ poor conceptual knowledge of the subjects they are teaching is a fundamental constraint on the quality of teaching and learning activities, and consequently on the quality of learning outcomes.” By implication this includes their ability to mark complex material accurately.

More recently, a 2011 report [p13] by the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality found that only 32% of grade six mathematics teachers in South Africa had desirable levels of mathematics content knowledge, compared with 90% in Kenya and 76% in Zimbabwe.

Similar findings
I could go on and mention the numerous provincial studies that have been conducted in the North West, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere that all find the same thing — extremely low levels of teacher content knowledge in the weakest parts of the schooling system — which, crucially, make up the majority of South Africa’s schools.

Given this situation, one wonders how Sadtu can argue that all matric teachers are equally competent to mark the matric exams or that they should not be tested. The union stance is that a system of teacher testing will disadvantage teachers from poor schools who cannot compete with those from wealthier schools. Although it is certainly true that the department has failed to provide meaningful learning opportunities to teachers in these underperforming schools, jeopardising the marks of matric pupils to make this stand is misguided, unethical and potentially even illegal.

These are important but separate issues and should be dealt with in different forums. But it is worth noting that the Western Cape has been testing prospective matric markers in the province since 2011, the only province in the country to do so.

The logic of the unions on this matter is perplexing. On numerous occasions they have rightly argued that teachers in poorer schools have not had meaningful learning opportunities and, therefore, that teachers are unequally prepared to teach, and by implication also unequally prepared to mark. Yet now they are arguing that all matric teachers are equally capable of marking the matric exams? So which is it? You can’t have it both ways. They either are or are not equally competent to mark matric exams. If it is the former, one cannot ensure children will receive the marks they are due; and if it is the latter, then one simply cannot argue that teachers should not be assessed prior to being appointed as markers.

On this question, a colleague of mine asked the following question: “How does the department employ people to teach matric when they are not considered competent to mark?” The uncomfortable answer is that, unfortunately, many matric teachers are neither competent to mark nor to teach — and this is because of no fault of their own. The blame instead falls squarely at the feet of the department, which has not provided them with quality professional development opportunities.

If one looks at the specifics of appointing matric markers, the union objections become even more bizarre. Although all matric teachers are legally allowed to apply to be matric markers, who is appointed and the criteria used for making these appointments are solely at the department’s discretion. Provided that these criteria are aligned with the position and are not discriminatory on such grounds as race, gender and sexual orientation, the department can select whomever it decides is most capable of doing the job.

Selection criteria
Currently the selection criteria relate to qualifications, teaching experience and language proficiency, but — bizarrely — not content knowledge. Given the nature of the work — assessing student responses for grading purposes — it seems only logical that applicants should be able to demonstrate this competency prior to being appointed for possessing it.

Because of the importance of the matric exam’s results for the life chances of individual pupils both in terms of further education opportunities and labour-market prospects, the department should put its foot down and take a stand for the 700 000 or so part-time and full-time students who are writing matric this year: it should insist that the 30 000-odd matric markers be tested prior to appointment.

Pupils, parents and school governing bodies have every reason to be concerned when there is no formal testing process to ensure that the teachers who will mark their all-important matric exams have the competence to do so in a consistent, fair and unbiased manner. Whether or not competency tests for matric markers are implemented has nothing to do with the unions and everything to do with the fairness of the marking and moderation procedures.

In sum, should prospective matric markers be tested prior to appointment? Yes. Is this a union issue? No. Will this be the last we hear of it? Unfortunately not.

The most tragic part of the above article is that I wrote it in November 2013 (published in the M&G here) and yet I can republish it here with one amendment; changing the sentence in the first line “for the past three years” to “for the past four years.” Matric markers are STILL not assessed before they are appointed, despite practically everyone agreeing that they should be tested. The second and third largest teacher unions (NAPTOSA and SAOU) both do not oppose teacher testing) Most notably the Ministerial Task Team report on the NSC (2014) who concluded that “Only the Western Cape selected its markers in 2013 based upon competency tests and was possibly disadvantaged by the strictness of the marking in its final overall results. A multifaceted, urgent and substantial intervention is called for to deal with the significant problems with the marking and the impact of this on the validity and reliability of the results” (Page 150 of the report). Why is it that the Minister can’t do the right thing on an issue that is UNAMBIGUOUSLY clear, rather than caving to SADTU?! This situation is utterly utterly disgraceful.

School visits in the rural Eastern Cape (Nov 2014) – some reflections (Post 1 of 2)

vistaLast week I was fortunate enough to visit 9 primary schools in one of the remotest parts of our country – the rural Eastern Cape. Some of the schools had no toilets, others had no electricity and many were simply falling apart. The trip was planned by the Legal Resources Centre who are visiting 200 schools in the rural Eastern Cape as part of an ongoing court-case around the eradication of mud-schools in the country (see here for an overview of the litigation). (Given that this is an ongoing court-case and to respect the anonymity of teachers and principals I won’t mention the names of the schools in my discussion below). My interest in tagging along was to find out more information about the learning outcomes in these schools, and the views and concerns of teachers and principals. I am increasingly of the opinion that large-scale quantitative research, if not complemented by on-the-ground experience, misses much of the picture and so I wanted to try and understand where things breakdown and why. We often have wonderful policies but disastrous implementation and abysmal outcomes – why is that? Where is the break in the chain and what causes it?

In each school I spoke to the principal and a teacher and looked for evidence of work in the students’ exercise books and workbooks and spoke to some of the students. I would say that a lot of what we found is reiterated in the literature (often countless times) and I’ll include links to that literature as I go through some of what I found…

(1) The learning environments in almost all of these nine schools was truly shocking. The picture below shows the classroom environment in one of the schools – the grade 1’s are on the left of the picture and the grade 2’s are on the right. (All the schools we visited were multi-grade schools where one teacher teaches two or three grades, usually in one classroom – the principal is always a teacher as well. This is seen as the only feasible option when learner numbers in an area are very low). This school does not have enough buildings or classrooms and so this classroom also doubles up as the  kitchen and sometimes also as the staff room. The person in the green on the left of the picture was a volunteer who helps make the food for the children. The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) provides a hot meal to over 9 million South African students every day – this is one of the major successes of the Department of Basic Education and one for which we should all be proud (see also Kha Rhi Gude – ditto, thanks Veronica McKay!). The problem with the setup at this school, as the principal told us, is that the children stop concentrating as soon as they can smell the food being made – (usually prepared from 9am to be ready before 10am), but this school has no other option – there are no other rooms to use.

multigrade and school feeding

One school we visited overcame this problem by building their own “kitchen” using mud and sticks…

mud kitchen

Some of the schools we visited had no toilets whatsoever (“The children use the bush”). This is despite the fact that often the municipality has installed toilets for nearby residents (sometime 150m away) but won’t build any for the school because that is not their mandate! Talk about a lack of government integration/communication. In some schools it is not the lack of space or toilets that was the problem but the inadequate roofing. In this school the tin roof on the one side of the classroom is full of holes. I asked the teacher what she does when it rains and she said, “Oh, then we all sit on this side of the classroom.” She teaches both Grade 1 and Grade 2 in this classroom.


In my discussion with this teacher, I asked her when they start teaching English at the school. According to the curriculum document (CAPS) teachers are required to teach English for  2/3 hours per week in grades 1 and 2 and 3/4 hours in grade 3. The teacher replied and said that she teaches English FAL from Grade 1. However when I was walking around the classroom and came across the timetable for grades 1 and 2 I saw that English did not feature in the timetable. This is problematic. Unless children slowly start increasing their vocabulary and competence in English in grades 1-3, the transition to English as medium-of-instruction in grade 4 is extremely difficult.

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In another school we visited they had built on a tin-classroom extension onto the brick school in order to accommodate the learners. The tragic story behind this school is that it was built by the community because the next closest primary school is across the river in the valley and too many children were drowning trying to cross it to get to school. Unbelievably tragic.

tin classroom 2

tin classroom

(2) There is extremely little learning taking place in these schools.

In every school that I went to (except for one) there was very little evidence of learning or work. Paging through a student’s workbook, you will typically find that of the 80 pages in the Term 1/2 workbook, only 15-20 pages will have anything written on them (this despite the fact that we are now in term 4). The pages with the work on them are spread throughout the book so that you will find one or two pages of work and then 10 pages that are blank and then another page of work etc. It’s also not as if these students are working extensively in exercise books – in the exercise books that I looked at you will find one exercise every two weeks (sometimes once a month) and it will be extremely basic. In grade 1 it would be things like drawing a picture and writing a word. However, even when students are working in the workbook, it’s clear that they don’t actually know what they are doing. To provide some examples:

First is first…

first is first

workbook is are

The student below is clearly just writing whatever has been underlined, irrespective of what it means.


In most of the schools I asked the Foundation Phase teacher if she thought that her Grade 3 students would be able to read this short story in English:

fun in the sun

Most of the teachers said that they thought their Grade 3 students would be able to read it. I asked if she could pick one student to read the story with me outside. To get the children relaxed I starting with an extremely elementary text, “The kids read books” (exercise from Gr 1 FAL book) which almost all the children could read. Then they would try and read the “Fun in the Sun” story (exercise from Gr1 HL workbook). Most of the selected children from the 9 schools (likely to be the better performing kids in the class) could read the story aloud in English – sometimes very slowly. However only 1 of the 9 students could answer the question “What colour is Sam’s cap?” and the same student was the only one who could answer the question “What colour is the mat?” Clearly these children are not ‘reading for meaning’ – i.e. they are illiterate. And this is in November 2014. These students will switch to English as medium of instruction in February 2015 when they enter grade 4 (see here for a nationally representative discussion and here for an excellent qualitative study on reading)

(3) Union meetings and departmental meetings are only ever held during school hours. One of the things that I was interested to find out was how often teachers and principals attend departmental meetings/training and union meetings and when these meetings are held. In this case all of the teachers I spoke to were part of SADTU (for a breakdown of SADTU membership by province see here). I asked the principals and teachers the following question “On which day of the week are departmental meetings usually held?” “On which day of the week are union meetings held?” Without any exceptions, all principals and all teachers said that the meetings happened during weekdays (various weekdays Mon-Fri) and during school hours  (usually 9am-1/2pm). There were approximately 4 union meetings a year and 3-4 departmental meetings or training days a year. One principal told me “In 2013 there were 5 workshops. This year we have had three workshops about how to mark the ANAs.” Yet another principal: “We have shut the school 4 or 5 times this year because there was training for the principal and one teacher on the same day and we are only 3 teachers.” This was something that I expected to hear but still found it very frustrating that everyone thought that it was totally OK to have meetings during school time. I think the one that infuriated me most was when someone told us that SADTU had organized a prayer meeting during school time and invited teachers to attend.

I include below the “Rules” poster that was put up on the wall in one of the schools we visited:

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If you battled to read it it says “(1) Learner must wear school uniform. (2) Educators must attend, clinics, workshops, seminars, and any governmental meetings. (3) All educators must be responsible for their duties delegated to them. (4) Educators must sign leave forms on their absence from school. (5) No educators are allowed to be out of classes in a teaching time, chatting, and discussing their problems.” I reserve the right to comment on this at a later date – there is so much to be said, mainly about priorities.

When I asked one teacher why they did not have the meetings on Saturdays the teacher replied “Because we are not paid to work on Saturdays. Why would we go if we are not paid?” Now I didn’t say this at the time, but that’s actually wrong. As part of teacher’s employment package, they are paid for 80 hours of ongoing professional development  (see page ix of this report). When I asked teachers what they did with the students when they went on training, they said that the other teachers looked after them or they told them not to come to school that day. In one of the schools that we visited the Grade R teacher was at a meeting and so the Grade R class was left unattended (the other two teachers were teaching their own classes). There were no books in the classroom and the students were just keeping themselves busy talking to each other and walking around:

grade r unattended

The SACMEQ study of 2007 asked principals a variety of questions about what they did with students when teachers were absent. There were 392 schools included in the study drawn as a nationally representative sample of primary schools in the country (see report here). I include the breakdown of the answers to those questions by province:

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More than 40% of principals in the Eastern Cape said they they send students home “sometimes” and leave students unattended “sometimes” when a teacher is absent (on any given day about 10-12 % of teachers are absent from school – see 2010 HSRC report here). A number of people working in the field have told me that if you ever want to do teacher training or have meetings it must happen during school hours or else the teachers will not come. Something is seriously rotten in the state of Denmark. However not all principals are as complacent and compliant as these principals. One remarkable principal I spoke to had the following to say about teacher absenteeism: “Each and every week there is a memorial service. We are dying like flies. But you cannot have a teacher away every single week. I cannot.”

(4) Intense union involvement in the appointment of educators, principals and district officials. One of the common threads that came through in many of my discussions was the involvement of the unions – particularly SADTU – in the appointment and promotion of teachers, principals and district officials. This did not come as much of a surprise – there is currently a Ministerial Task Team looking into the sale of teaching posts. The thing I was interested in is how this actually happens. One of the people I spoke to was particularly insightful on this…let me include some excerpts from our conversation:

Nic: “You mentioned that the unions are involved in appointments and promotions, can you tell me how that works?”

X: “When you are selecting a Head of Department (HOD) for the school there are 2 parents from the SGB and 1 teacher, the principal is there but cannot vote. In the rural Eastern Cape many of the parents are not well educated. They know nothing about laws so it is just the principal and the teachers.  SADTU can very easily influence the parents through the teacher. If SADTU does not get the person that they want they will say there was an irregularity in the interview process. I once encouraged the parents to appoint a good mathematics teacher for my school and they did, but they were not SADTU’s choice so they had the teacher removed. They re-advertised the post but without subject specification because there was no SADTU member who had maths or science. I am now stuck with someone who is babysitting mathematics and my results are terrible. My ANAs are very low in mathematics. And you cannot challenge it.” [“Why can’t you challenge SADTU?”] They will go for you. They will accuse you of sexual misconduct and there must be an enquiry. They will accuse you of financial mismanagement. They will go for small things to catch you. You know you need 3 quotations if you buy something and you must write it down so that if you only have two or forgot to write it down, they will catch you. Most principals will make a small mistake. But these are honest mistakes. But they will catch you.”  “The Department is listening and and the union is managing. SADTU does not want to listen, they want to lead and they want to manage.”

Me: “Can you tell me about the appointment of district officials, curriculum advisors etc. do you know anything about how that works?” Response: “Yes, those are also appointed by SADTU. Everyone is looking for posts and if you want a post somewhere, SADTU can make it happen.”

Another principal had recently appointed a new teacher and I asked about the process and he/she said “We get given a list from the district office and pick someone from the list.” [“How were the people on the list selected?”] “We are in a rural area, we don’t know how those people got on the list.”

Unless we can figure out a way to eradicate these illegal practices and prosecute those involved, the Eastern Cape will remain completely dysfunctional. When I hear these stories piling up one on top of the other – always the same tune just in a different key – my blood starts to boil. People playing politics while Rome is burning. No one could possibly come up with any moral or ethical defence for the kinds of corrupt and collusive practices that permeates the entire education bureaucracy in the Eastern Cape (and many other provinces I’m sure). And the most tragic thing of all is that the burden of this cancer falls most heavily on the poorest of the poor, whose children will never receive a basic quality of education and never be able to develop their talents and personalities. They are condemned to unemployment, indignity and hereditary poverty…and so the cycle continues…


I intend to write a follow-up post where I discuss the infuriating issue of Nkandla-size mud-school replacements, as well as some of my other observations about the recent trip…

Further reading: