Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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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.

Back to basics…



One night while sitting in my hotel room in Hamburg feeling frustrated and angry after reading the South African news on education I wrote this article on the Minimum Norms and Standards saga: “Don’t shoot for the stars” it’s banging the usual drum…back to basics…water, toilets and electricity before libraries, microscopes and computers. Duh? I know right. Feel free to like the M&G page or tweet – a journalist is my backup career in case I flunk academia :)

Back to work…

forrest man

So I’ve just got back from training in Hamburg where we looked at how to analyze international large-scale assessment databases like PIRLS, TIMSS and PISA (watch this video by the master of PISA Andreas Schleicher). I’m planning on using prePIRLS and TIMSS for one paper of my PhD so this was really useful for me. For those interested in an exhaustive list of papers published with IEA data – you can find it here - very useful resource!

Germany was great – public transport is ubiquitous, as are public parks and rain. The Stadtpark in Hamburg and the Tiergarten in Berlin were two of the highlights of my trip. If I had to be honest about what I enjoyed most about Berlin (and there is a lot to enjoy) it would be one particular cafe called St Oberholz. Just as my envy was rising, thinking that these awesomely trendy working-cafes were two-a-penny in Berlin, a local told me that even by Berlin standards this cafe was uber cool and the current place to be. The thing that made it cool for me wasn’t so much the decor or the food or the coffee (all of which are above average), it was the people who frequent it and the reason they go there [can you tell I've been taking a sociology course?!]. The best way to describe it is to say it is a young working-cafe. There are as many plug-points, iPads, Moleskines and MacBooks as there are people or places to sit. It’s open until midnight and is packed with young people and their earphones who are clearly doing something worthwhile – writing plays, sketching in a journal or poring over some canonical text in their chosen field. This was like a uni-cafe on steroids. As someone who loves to work in cafes and enjoys being in a productive environment it was cafe heroin. The closest thing I can think of in Cape Town is probably the coffee shops at the Woodstock Exchange.

Anyways, as usual I am more than happy to be back – travelling is awesome, but South Africa is awesomer :) Time to get back into the groove and get my research back on track…onward and upward.

For those interested here’s some interesting reading…

  • Useful list of short bios of eminent thinkers in education (written by top-notch academics).
  • Who are the middle class in South Africa? Does it matter for policy?” – nice 3×3 article by my friend Justin Visagie. The actual middle group in South Africa earn between R1520 and  R4560 for the entire household. Basically when we talk of the “middle class” in South Africa we usually mean the elite. Let’s be a little more circumspect in our nomenclature folks.
  • The benefits of early childhood stimulation are hugeThis new JPAL study which is a 20-year follow-up to a randomized trial in Jamaica shows that stimulation increased the average earning of participants by 42%. Just read the abstract if you’re not a fan of technical wizardry.
  • Thoroughly interesting chapter by Henri Nouwen titled “Pentacostalism on campus” – written in the ’70s and asking questions which too few of us are currently asking. Highly recommended. (Sorry for my annotations – I wasn’t planning on scanning it but it was just too good not to).
  • Short video explaining the benefits of an extended school day in one school in America (Thanks Johan Fourie).
  • The latest Economist is on poverty trends – note to self: find time to read it!

Cool links from the intertrons…



  • Course outline for the course I co-lecture: Economic and Development Problems in Africa. The course is for international exchange students at Stellenbosch.
  • Well-written NYT article calling for more attention to boys-schooling. Basically we neglect male proclivities at our own educational peril.
  • A nice Economist article on why Scandinavian countries are succeeding across the board (and another one -  clearly the Economist has gone gaga for the Nordics, and rightly so)
  • Interesting Economist article on grit and why children need more than smarts to succeed:
    • But new research from a spate of economists, psychologists, neuroscientists and educators has found that the skills that see a student through college and beyond have less to do with smarts than with more ordinary personality traits, like an ability to stay focused and control impulses
  • Angus Deaton writes a book review of Stiglitz’s latest book and asks What’s wrong with inequality? (Lancet): “In effect, when inequality becomes large enough, the very rich no longer live in the same society as everyone else.
  • The essence of Cape Town hipsterism - The Woodstock Exchange (I love this place)
  • Quote of the day: “If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.” – David Foster Wallace

Census 2011 Report

If you, like me, battled to download the South African Census 2011 report from the Stats SA website. You can download it HERE (mirror link). Should be much faster and it won’t crash…