Carte Blanche episode on SA’s Reading Crisis

This 13min Carte Blanche episode was aired on 30 April 2023.

10 Main Findings from PIRLS 2021 South Africa

On Tuesday the 16th of May 2023 the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released the findings from their 2021 survey. South Africa was one of 57 countries and regions that participated. is an independently administered, nationally representative assessment of reading comprehension among a sample of Grade 4 learners in South Africa. In 2021 the survey included 321 primary schools and tested 12,426 Grade 4 students between August to November 2021. South Africa has participated in PIRLS four times (2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021). The tests are set by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and implemented in South Africa by the Center for Evaluation and Assessment (CEA) at the University of Pretoria. The tests are comparable over time and across countries, with all tests translated into the official languages of each country. In South Africa all 11 languages are tested. Children are tested in Grade 4 in whatever the language of instruction is from Grades 1-3 in the school (i.e. an isiZulu learner in an isiZulu school in KZN would write the test in isiZulu).  The SA 2021 Highlights Report is available here and the International 2021 Report is available here.

Here are the 10 main findings in my opinion (also in PDF here):

(1) In 2021 81% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language, up from 78% in 2016.

This means that only 19% of South African Grade 4 children could read for meaning in any language in 2021 (all 11 languages were assessed). Because PIRLS is a nationally-representative sample, of the 1,127,877 Grade 4 students in 2021, 914,000 could not read for meaning in any language. SA’s PIRLS score dropped from 320 (2016) to 288 (2021), approximately 0,8 years of learning.

(2) We have lost a decade of progress.

Between 2006 and 2016 the percentage of children that could not read declined from 87% (2006) to 82% (2011) to 78% (2016), but has now increased back to 81% (2021), wiping out a decade of slow progress and taking us back to 2011 levels of achievement.

(3) SA came last of all 57 countries, with the largest decline between 2016 & 2021.

South Africa had the lowest average Grade 4 test score of all participating countries. Of the 57 countries/regions, 33 had trend data from 2016 to 2021. Of those with trend data, South Africa experienced the largest decline in learning outcomes between 2016 and 2021.

(4) The average Gr4 child in SA in 2021 was 80% of a year behind their counterpart in 2016

SA’s PIRLS score dropped from 320 (2016) to 288 (2021). Given that approximately 40 points is equal to one year of learning, this is approximately 0,8 years of learning that we’ve lost on average.

(5) Northern rural provinces experienced the largest declines in reading.

Four provinces experienced declines of more than a full year of learning between 2016 and 2021. Given that 40 points amounts to one year of learning, this was as follows: North West (-2,4yrs), Free State (-1,6yrs), Mpumalanga (-1,2yrs) and Limpopo (-1yr). The three coastal provinces (WC, KZN and EC) experienced the smallest declines with WC showing the smallest decline (-0,4yrs).

(6) English and Afrikaans schools did not experience a decline between 2016 and 2021.

In comparison, most African language schools did decline, highlighting that the pandemic increased inequality between no-fee and fee-charging schools. (Note that the marginal increase in average scores for English and Afrikaans LOLT schools between 2016 and 2021 is not statistically significant. We do not yet have the standard errors for provincial averages since the DBE has not released the full South Africa PIRLS 2021 report (despite having access to it).

(7) Brazilian Grade 4’s are 3 years ahead of South African Grade 4’s.

The average score in Brazil was 419 points in 2021 compared to South Africa’s 288 points. The average Grade 4 child in South Africa is 3,3 years behind the average Brazilian Grade 4 child. In Brazil 61% of Grade 4’s could read at a basic level in 2021 compared to 19% in South Africa. Note that Brazil and South Africa have roughly the same GDP/capita ($7000/capita). See my Business Day op-ed on what we can learn from Brazil here.

(8) SA had the largest gender gap (pro-girl) of all 57 participating countries/regions, with SA girls 1,5 years ahead of SA boys.

The average Grade 4 girl in South Africa scored 57 points higher than the average Grade 4 boy, placing them about 1,5 years of learning ahead of their male counterparts. While girls outperform boys in all countries, the South African gap is more than twice the international average gap between boys and girls.

(9) SA does not currently have a credible or budgeted plan to catch up learning losses, despite experiencing the largest decline between 2016 and 2021.

It should be noted that PIRLS 2021 is the first nationally representative indication of learning losses to dateTo quote a recent research report reviewing DBE’s interventions relating to COVID-19 “There has been no attempt to recoup time in order to remediate learning losses, apart from very recent attempts in one province. The insistence on a largely business-as-usual approach to curriculum implementation fails to recognise and address the severe educational impact of the pandemic, especially on learners in the poorest communities (Hoadley, 2023: p.1). By contrast, many countries have multi-billion rand catch-up programs, for example Colombia’s PROMISE program (R3,5-billion), the Indian state of Gujarat’s GOAL initiative (R9,5-billion),  the Recovering Learning Losses program in northern Brazil (R4,8-billion), or the R7,3-billion ‘2023 Plan de Ractivación Educativa’ in Chile announced last month, acknowledging it will take at least four years to catch up the learning losses from COVID-19. Only one province (WC) has so far announced a budgeted plan for catching up learning losses (WCED’s R1,2bn ‘Back on Track’ program).

(10) A ‘generational catastrophe’

The new PIRLS 2021 reveal what can arguably be referred to as a ‘generational catastrophe.’ More than 4-million children in primary school have experienced more than half their schooling career in a disrupted state (either school closures or rotational timetables). Research on school closures from natural disasters like earthquakes in Pakistan and the Ebola crisis in West Africa all show that there are long term consequences to short term crises. These include lower educational attainment, lower earnings, higher unemployment and being more likely to be in lower skilled occupations in adulthood. This effect might even carry over to the children of the children affected by school closures, as happened with school closures in Argentina.

What can be done?

Evidence-based interventions to catch up learning losses. South Africa has the benefit of numerous interventions that have been proven to raise learning outcomes, even in no fee schools and in poorer provinces. These have been summarized in a recent book published by Oxford University Press (Spaull & Taylor, 2022)

(1)   Recruiting, training and equipping youth to be Teacher Assistants. Teaching assistants help teachers deal with large classes and different learning levels of children. A successful program in Limpopo selected youth using numeracy and literacy tests, trained them for four days face-to-face per term, equipped them with workbooks to use and monitored and supported them with TA-mentors (see Makaluza & Mpeta, 2022). This resulted in substantial improvements to literacy and numeracy equivalent to more than 1 additional year of learning. The government’s Presidential Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI) Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI) has established the organizational, political and financial feasibility of operating a teacher assistant programme at scale. The Limpopo programme demonstrates that it is also feasible to meaningfully impact learning outcomes and provides a model for recruitment, training and mentoring to achieve that. Subsequent iterations of the PYEI / Jobs Fund program could incorporate these learnings to catch up learning losses.

(2)    Rolling out anthologies of graded readers to all grade 1-3 children. Most children do not have basic texts needed to learn how to read in their home language at school or at home. This can be remedied using low cost anthologies of graded readers that cost R15/book/child.  For a brief period of 2 years (2019 and 2020) the Eastern Cape Department of Basic Education rolled out anthologies of graded readers – essentially a set of about 20 sequenced stories aimed at teaching children to read in their home language. The program was evaluated and shown to improve reading outcomes in isiXhosa for the children who received them compared to previous cohorts in the same schools who did not (see Ardington & Spaull, 2022).

(3)   Training teachers face-to-face and equipping them with comprehensive workbooks and teacher guides: (Ardington, 2023). Research in Limpopo shows that equipping learners with workbooks and teachers with teacher guides, in addition to four days of face-to-face training per term led to a 60% of a year of learning increase compared to business-as-usual schools.

(4)   Using teacher-coaches to support teachers on how to teach reading. The DBE’s Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) shows that reading outcomes of Grade 1-3 learners improve after at least 2 years of an expert reading coach supporting and visiting teachers in the schools.


PDF of the above is available here.

My Business Day article today on PIRLS 2021: “Look to Brazil”

About 2,000 years ago Stoic philosopher Seneca was tutoring a Roman emperor and offered him the following advice: “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable.” The lesson here concerns the importance of planning and having a goal to know where you’re going. Unfortunately, when it comes to early grade reading in SA we are a ship at sea without a port in sight or plan in hand.  

On Tuesday we learnt that in 2021 81% of SA grade 4s couldn’t read a few simple paragraphs in their home language and answer basic literal questions. This is according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), a grade 4 test that was administered in all 11 languages in SA (SA highlights report here, international report here).

It’s not as if this was just a pandemic thing — the SA illiteracy rate in the last Pirls (2016) was 78%. This high rate of grade 4 illiteracy is unique to SA, at least among middle-income countries. The latest survey showed far lower rates in countries such as Egypt (55%), Jordan (53%) and Brazil (49%), all of which wrote the same test, at the same time, in their own languages.

Another shocking finding was that grade 4s in SA were three years behind grade 4s in Brazil, a country we like to compare ourselves to, perhaps optimistically. Brazil is an interesting case. Under former president Jair Bolsonaro the education budget was slashed, and he scrapped a successful national literacy programme.

When Lula da Silva was re-elected president earlier in 2023, his first move was to reverse the budget cuts in education and appoint Camilo Santana as education minister. Santana was the governor of Ceará, one of the poorest states in Brazil, but also the fastest-improving state on reading outcomes over the past 20 years. Ceará moved from poverty pariah to poster child, with countries now sending delegations to understand how they managed to get 84% of grade 3s reading for meaning.

Just two decades before, 40% of grade 3s in the state couldn’t read a single word. Going further, three months ago Lula created a new presidential secretariat dedicated specifically to books and literacy. For us in SA this is a parable of what’s possible with a president who follows words with actions, and who appoints ministers who are relentless about well-defined goals. 

You will recall that in 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his state of the nation address that early grade reading was one of his administration’s “top five priorities” and that “within the next 10 years … every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning”.

This was then codified in the medium-term strategic framework as one of “five fundamental goals”, alongside halving violent crime, increasing employment, eliminating hunger and promoting economic growth. But a goal is not a plan. Four years on from those lofty words, where are we on reading?

There is still no national reading plan, and if anything things have got worse. We have no plan to retrain our teachers, eliminate extreme class sizes, or resource classrooms with the specific books and tools teachers need to teach reading (graded readers, story books, alphabet friezes, etc). Instead, we have a patchwork document that saw the light of day only in May, and then only in response to Carte Blanche’s Promotion of Access to Information Act request.

We have no plan to retrain our teachers, eliminate extreme class sizes, or resource classrooms with the specific books and tools teachers need to teach reading.

This shambolic document is a laundry list of 47 activities. There are a few good ideas, but most are random fluff, including my favourite: “Partnerships with big business to include reading materials in food packages (eg ‘Did you know?’ messages in Chappies).” You can’t make this stuff up.

The plan lists targets for each year from 2019-2024, none of which has been reached. This Reworked National Reading Sector Implementation Plan 2019-2024 was released (under duress) only  in May 2023, a year before it will expire. 

A credible plan comes with credible milestones, a credible budget, a credible team and accountable reporting to political superiors. We have none of those things. Much of the department of basic education’s work on reading is outsourced to the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), a quasi-governmental project management office reporting to the director-general and minister. In part this is because the department itself is too slow or unable to execute the wishes of the minister.

The NECT has some good people working for it, but is under-capacitated and under-budgeted for the mandate it seems to have acquired. You cannot retrain 120,000 grade R to grade 3 teachers with a R37m budget, or even a R370m budget for that matter. To provide a sense of scale, we are spending R294bn on basic education in 2023, about 5% of GDP.

One province by itself, the Western Cape, is spending R400m in 2023 on Covid catch-up alone. The NECT, by contrast, is tasked with doing everything under the sun, including technology, maths, science, matric, reading, primary schools, high schools and Covid catch-up. 

Coming back to our stoic philosopher, it would seem as if the department has reframed the quote to be more palatable: “If a man knows not what harbour he seeks, any wind is favourable.” So, any activities, big or small, we’re here for you. Chappies partnerships, working with 150 schools here, 1,000 school libraries there, mobilising “Read to Lead” and encouraging teachers to “Drop all And Read”.

The problem with all this chatter is that it lacks prioritisation, it lacks accountability and it lacks budget. The presidency has been loath to hold ministers accountable for tangible, objectively verifiable progress towards a limited number of goals.  

We should heed the advice of history. That emperor was Nero, and he ignored Seneca’s advice. In fact, Nero forced him to commit suicide and went on to kill his own mother before burning the city of Rome. It’s where we get the expression “Fiddling while Rome burns”.

This feels especially apt when looking at the mess of 81% of grade 4s being unable to read for meaning, with no plan and no political will to get us out of it. And so, all I can say is: where’s the plan, minister Motshekga? And President Ramaphosa, are you a man of action like Lula, or does your word mean nothing?

This article first appeared in the Business Day on 18 May 2023.

Links I liked #34

  • Getting to SDG4: Useful 2023 UIS report on ‘Trends in learning proficiency in the last 20 years: How close are we to reliable regional and global SDG 4.1.1 trend statistics. Martin Gustafsson’s reports are always great and this is no exception. Sober, evidence-based and useful.
  • EGRA outcomes by gender: Nice new report (May 2023) by Fonseca et al out of RTI on “Girls have academic advantages and so do boys: A multi-country analysis of gender differences in early grade reading and mathematics outcomes.
  • The Latin-americanisation of SA schools: Last month Johnny Steinberg wrote an interesting op-ed for the Business Day ‘Bad education follows on the township exit of the middle classes. He makes the argument that because the middle classes have left public schools in South Africa, and that “public goods crumble when the middle classes exit”, SA no-fee schools will not improve. It’s an interesting argument and has been made before by Luis Crouch around the transition. I often use an extract of an email exchange I had with Luis in 2018 with my students to explain the nuances and trade-offs faced by the ANC around 1994 (see here). I was asking Luis to contextualise his use of the term “the threat of Latin-Americanisation of SA schools” and he explained it as “The notion that not having the middle classes vocally and publicly support public education as a matter of personal rather than abstract interest, because their own children were in private schools, and that this was deleterious to both accountability and budgetarily support, was fairly commonly held in Latin America at the time. Thus the “Latin-Americanization” notion, a term I may have coined in the South African context.” In most senses this did ‘work’ – SA has a relatively small private school sector. The DBE’s 2022 School Realities shows that only 5,5% of children in South Africa attend private schools (what we call ‘Independent Schools’). That figure is around 17% for most Low and Middle Income countries. Yet that hides the fact that fee-charging public schools are in a way semi-private (they allow parents to top-up public funds with private contributions). See Motala & Carel (2019) I don’t think Johnny’s argument is as clean or simple as he makes it out to be. For example, countries with similar levels of inequality – Brazil / Chile – have much better learning outcomes. It also doesn’t explain why, pre-pandemic, learning outcomes were actually improving quite rapidly (see Van der Berg & Gustafsson, 2019). Personally I think the political economy and bureaucracy dynamics (ANC-SADTU) explain more of the lock-jam than he gives credit to. But great to read thoughtful pieces in our media.
  • The Right to Read: The US Right to Read 2023 Trailer – Glad to see campaigns like this getting momentum. Our own Right to Read & Write published by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) makes similar arguments – essentially that learning to read is a fundamental human right that all are entitled to by virtue of their birth and common humanity.
  • Chile’s COVID-19 catch-up program: Tutorías 2023 with a great promo video:
  • WCED’s Back on Track Program: On Thursday the WCED launched it’s R1,2-billion ‘Back on Track‘ program covering tutoring, Saturday classes, holiday camps etc. There is some detail in the presentation but we’ll have to wait for the full roll-out plan with all the details. Very encouraging to see a costed and budgeted plan for COVID catch up that matches the scale of the devastation.
  • Private schools & PPPs in LMIC: Crawfurd, Hares and Todd (2023) published their paper “The Impact of Private Schools, School Chains and PPPs in Developing Countries” – they conclude that: “The search resulted in over 100 studies on low-cost private schools and PPPs, with a large majority being on low-cost private schools. Our meta-analysis shows moderately strong effects from private schooling, although the limited number of experimental studies find much smaller effects than quasi-experimental studies. This advantage, though, is not nearly enough to help most children reach important learning goals. Turning to policy goals, we find that the private school advantage has not translated to public private partnerships, which have shown limited value in improving quality. They can however represent a lower-cost means of increasing access to school. We also find that private school chains perform little better than individual private schools and have little scope for achieving meaningful scale.”
  • Tracking FLN donor spending: SEEK Development launched their “Donor Tracker for Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN)” The dominance of the United States when it comes to bilateral funding for FLN is significant. Of the $505million spent on FLN in 2020, 68% ($344mil) came from the United States (see below). If you do a deep-dive into US funding specifically you see that the total funding for FLN declined sharply between 2019 ($434mil) and 2020 ($344mil), a 21% decline i na single year. FLN funding is also now a smaller proportion of total funding in 2020 (27% of total) compared to 2019 (30% of total). These are worrying trends since it suggests that the biggest bilateral donor is shifting away from FLN. Great tool to look at funding trends over time.
  • RISE’s Education Systems Course: The folks at Rise have created an Open Access “Education Systems Course” with lectures and videos. Useful syllabus to catch up on readings in this area.
  • School feeding in SA: Given the recent furore over the DBE school feeding scheme (NSNP) failures in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, I was reminded of a 2016 report I came across evaluating the NSNP in two districts in the Eastern Cape. Frustrating that even “stock standard” decades long interventions like the NSNP can go pear shaped without proper monitoring.
  • Racial dynamics in SA: Justine Burns and co-authors published a paper in the AER on “Interaction, Stereotypes, and Performance: Evidence from South Africa.” Fascinating paper: “We exploit a policy designed to randomly allocate roommates in a large South African university to investigate whether interracial interaction affects stereotypes, attitudes and performance. Using implicit association tests, we find that living with a roommate of a different race reduces White students’ negative stereotypes towards Black students and increases interracial friendships. Interaction also affects academic outcomes: Black students improve their GPA, pass more exams and have lower dropout rates. This effect is not driven by roommate’s ability.”
  • A Moral Education: Garth Greenwell writes an essay for the Yale Review that is at times piercing and other times rambling on “In praise of filth.” I liked the initial discussion about the modern turn (or return) to moralising art and the problems with woke culture categorising art “Within the small world of people who care about literature and art, the culture is as moralistic as it has ever been in my lifetime: witness our polemics about who has the right to what subject matter, our conviction that art has a duty to right representational wrongs, that poems or novels or films can be guilty of a violence that seems ever less metaphorical against an audience construed as ever more vulner­able. We have a sense that the most important questions we can ask about a work of art are whether and to what extent it furthers extra-artistic aims, to what extent it serves a world outside itself. The idea that artists should make what they feel compelled to make, regardless of such considerations, that in fact art should be pro­tected from responsibilities of this kind, seems part and parcel of a discredited Romantic model of the artist as exempt from workaday morality, licensed by genius to act badly, or at least to disregard the claims of others.”
  • Learning losses and resisting “back to normal” policies: The New York Times published an article “Parents Don’t Understand How Far Behind Their Kids Are in School” (via Brahm Fleisch). Their conclusion is especially apt in South Africa where the modus operandi has been very much “back to normal” in most provinces: “As enticing as it might be to get back to normal, doing so will just leave in place the devastating increase in inequality caused by the pandemic. In many communities, students lost months of learning time. Justice demands that we replace it. We must find creative ways to add new learning opportunities in the summer, after school, on weekends or during a 13th year of school. If we fail to replace what our children lost, we — not the coronavirus — will be responsible for the most inequitable and longest-lasting legacy of the pandemic. But if we succeed, that broader and more responsive system of learning can be our gift to America’s schoolchildren.”

Progress is possible! The Funda Wande Limpopo RCT Results (Feb’23)

Last week Funda Wande released the midline evaluation of their Limpopo Randomised Control Trial, evaluated by Prof Cally Ardington from UCT. In essence the intervention is 120 schools split into 3 arms of 40 schools each: a control arm, a Materials+training arm, and Materials+training+Teacher-Assistant arm (each teacher received a full-time Teacher Assistant). Although the graphic says “Materials only” – the report shows that actually there was also centralised teacher training (of 4 days per term – 2 for literacy and 2 for numeracy).

The intervention is both a literacy intervention (Funda Wande) and a numeracy intervention (Bala Wande) with the same learners, teachers and schools. The results are incredibly encouraging with a 0,5 standard deviation increase in both reading and mathematics after two years of intervention in the Materials+Training+TA arm. That means that this intervention represents the largest gains we’ve seen in foundational literacy and numeracy in South Africa to date. We can see the gains in terms of standard deviations. But in their presentation to the 2030 Reading Panel, Prof Ardington and Dr Makaluza show the changes in outcomes realtive to the DBE’s new language-specific and grade-specific reading benchmarks.

While the 39-page evaluation report is rich in detail, one of the areas that really stood out to me was the increase in workbook coverage in both the LTSM+Training arm and the LTSM+Training+TA arms:

This intervention shows that unemployed youth, when they are recruited properly (literacy and numeracy tests among other things), trained properly, and supported properly (they have TA mentors), they can have a big impact on reading outcomes in the classroom.

For those interested in what components of reading and mathematics were tested, and how large the impacts were across the treatment arms, these are also in the report and included below:

We have a lot of shit going on in South Africa at the moment. We have ministers coming and going. The power is coming and going. The political winds seem to be more like a series of squalls rather than anything predictable or helpful. And this is all before the 2024 election when everything will get even more uncertain. Yet even in these turbulent times, it is encouraging to note that there are schools and teachers and youth that can pull together and with the right support, training and materials can lead to large improvements in reading outcomes for the young children in their charge.

Congratulations to Dr Nwabisa Makaluza and the entire Limpopo Funda Wande team who ran and implemented this intervention, and to Prof Cally Ardington who has conducted an incredibly useful evaluation of the intervention.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – MLKJ

2023 Reading Panel

On the 7th of February we held the second 2030 Reading Panel meeting. The Panel is comprised of 18 respected South Africans who meet annually to review progress towards the Presidential goal of “All South African children being able to read for meaning by age 10 by 2030”, and provides implementable systemic recommendations to government.

Key findings from the 2023 Background Report launched on 7 February 2023:

  1. 82% of SA Grade 4 kids can’t read, up from 78% pre-pandemic: Before the pandemic it was estimated that 78% of Grade 4 learners could read for meaning (PIRLS 2016), new research based on learning losses in the Western Cape suggests that this has risen to 82% as a result of COVID-19 school closures and rotational timetables.
  1. It will take SA 86 years on our current trajectory to reach 95% of children reading for meaning, i.e. the year 2108.
  1. Pandemic has erased a decade of progress, sending us back to 2011. In 2016 22% of Grade 4 children could read for meaning in SA according to PIRLS. Due to COVID-19 it is estimated that now only 18% can read for meaning, the same level as in 2011, erasing a decade of progress in reading outcomes.
  1. 50% of children in no-fee schools do not learn the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1. New research from Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and the North West published in December 2022 shows that less than 50% of children in no-fee schools learn all the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1.
  1. There is currently no National Reading Plan and no national budget for reading. Although the Director General has made reference to a ‘National Reading Plan’ in parliament, no such document exists in the public domain or has been seen by stakeholders. There is also no national budget for improving home-language reading.
  1. Western Cape & Gauteng are both spending more than R100-million over three years to improve reading, the only provinces to do so. The Western Cape is investing in a Reading for Meaning program for Grades 1-3 (2023-2025, R111mil) and Gauteng in their Grade R Program (2022-2024, R107-mil). These are the only provinces to allocate significant budgets to reading (although the Gauteng intervention is 80% donor funded).
  1. Government has spent over R25-billion on PYEI, including Educator Assistants (EA), 10% of which are Reading Champions. As part of its COVID response the Presidency Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI) has employed over 850,000 youth on temporary contracts. It is estimated that 250,000 youth will be appointed in 2023 & approximately 30,000 will be Reading Champions. Although this is a welcome addition, there is currently no face-to-face training for these youth and the only requirement is that they must have passed matric.
  1. Twice as many children learnt to read in Limpopo after a 2-year intervention with trained teacher assistant and new reading workbooks. A new evaluation of the ‘Funda Wande’ intervention in Limpopo (2021-2022) showed that twice as many children learnt to read in the intervention schools (34%) compared to children in comparable schools who did not receive the intervention (18%), the largest gains seen in SA to date. (Full Feb’23 evaluation report here).

The panel found that almost no progress had been made on the 2022 recommendations and therefore reiterated the four recommendations from 2022 and added two more:

  1. Measuring what matters: implementing a universal standardized assessment of reading at the primary school level
  2. Moving from slogans to budgets: allocating meaningful budgets to reading resources and reading interventions not only talking about them
  3. Providing a minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation Phase classrooms (Grade R-3) as a matter of urgency.
  4. A university audit of pre-service teacher education programs.
  5. To publish a National Reading Plan and the budget for its implementation
  6. To improve the implementation of the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative

The full 2023 Background Report is available on the Reading Panel here and advisory notes on the reading panel website:

This week we published 3 Open Access books on Early Grade Reading, Mathematics and Interventions in SA :)

There are lots of things that are wrong with South Africa at the moment. As I type this our parliament is in the process of deciding whether President Ramaphosa should be subject to an impeachment inquiry. But even when things are dark (literally), and the prospects for improvement are dim, South Africa still has a lot of things going for it. I’ll mention just one of them: a thriving community of scholars who give a shit about the country, who want to do impactful research, and who really care about improving the life chances of poor kids. Not many people know that before COVID hit, South Africa’s learning outcomes were improving quickly. That is to say they were both improving and terrible at the same time – they are not mutually exclusive. This week Oxford University Press published three volumes on (1) Early Grade Reading, (2) Early Grade Mathematics, and (3) Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions. A few years ago a few of us were discussing progress in reading and mathematics outcomes and we all agreed that we know so much more today than we did in 2010. In some areas (TVET and housing, for example) we know almost nothing more in 2022 than we did in 2010. Things are bad and we don’t really know how to improve them at scale. In early grade reading and mathematics things are different. We have much more data now, we have a whole wave of new research and (excitingly) new researchers. We decided that we should write a book to try and document what we now know at the end of the first decade. We quickly realised that it wouldn’t fit into one volume, and so now we have three! Although I suppose I was the chief cat-herder across the volumes, the entire series was a collaborative effort. The folk at Oxford University Press (Megan, Marisa, Ashley and the copy-editors) were efficient, professional, flexible and passionate about the project. Our excellent editorial assistant (Jess Qvist) made sure that no ball remained dropped for too long. My co-editors Lilli, Stephen, Hamsa and Nicky were exactly what you want in academic colleagues – smart, funny, friendly, punctual, and always ready to call you on your bullshit. It’s such a nice way to close off the year to see the books in print, and also as Open Access ePDFs which are free to download. Of course nothing is ever the final word and research is an iterative process so we look forward to everyone’s comments and critiques and will most certainly have an in-person launch event in the new year!

For now you can download all three volumes here.


“Collectively the three books bring together 77 authors from disciplines including economics, linguistics, literacy studies, mathematics education, teacher education, and policy studies. Although their domains and methods of analysis may differ, all authors grappled with the same underlying question: why is it that so few young children in South Africa acquire the building blocks of reading and mathematics in the first years of school? While international large-scale assessments have drawn increasing attention to learning outcomes at the primary school level, there is now a broad-based consensus that the roots of the problem lie even earlier than upper primary school. International assessments like PIRLS and TIMSS show that 60–80% of Grade 4 and 5 learners cannot read for meaning or calculate using the four operations, but emerging research documented in these volumes highlights that more than 50% of learners at the end of Grade 1 do not know all the letters of the alphabet, and cannot add and subtract single-digit numbers.

It is this challenge that animates the research across these three volumes, with an analytic focus on lessons learnt in the last decade (2010–2022). While learning outcomes in South Africa before the Covid-19 pandemic were improving quickly by international standards, the chapters included here present evidence for both optimism and alarm. Optimism because system-wide improvements do not happen accidentally or in a vacuum. Alarm because in 2022 it is still the case that the dignity and life-chances of millions of children in South Africa are foreclosed because they do not learn to read for meaning, or do mathematics with understanding in the first three years of school.

As a group of scholars committed to understanding and documenting the roots of both blockages and breakthroughs in reading and mathematics, it is our hope that you, the reader, find this new research interesting, helpful, generative, and challenging.”

Can I change?

We’re hiring! (RESEP Project Administrator)

If you’re keen to come and work with the RESEP team at Stellenbosch, we’re hiring a Project Administrator either on a 50% basis (R150-250k) or a 75% basis (R225-R375k) depending on qualifications and experience. We are trying to prioritise the diversity of the RESEP team and encourage all interested parties to apply. This position is mainly working on a large new project called the Teacher Demographic Dividend. Nearly half of all publicly employed teachers are aged 50+ and will therefore retire in the next 10-15 years. This will bring both challenges and opportunities.

RESEP is collegial and friendly and we enjoy working with each other. We are also big on creating opportunities for people to grow into new roles.

For more information for this position see below and apply HERE (deadline 5 Dec 2022).

Links I Liked #33

  • A new-ish paper by Das, Singh & Chang (2022) “Test scores and educational opportunities: Panel evidence from five low- and middle-income countries” is a sobering reminder of the primacy of family wealth and socioeconomic status: “A striking implication is that in every country, children from low SES backgrounds who are in the 80th percentile of test scores at age 12 have similar years of completed schooling at age 22 as children from high SES backgrounds who were at the 20th percentile of test scores.”
  • IEA published a list of “Factsheets” for International Large Scale Assessments (ILSAs), for example TIMSS 2019.
  • RTI (2021) Higher Grounds: Practical Guidelines for Forging Learning Pathways in Upper Primary Education
  • Nice visualisation of Pakistan’s 2022 budget (GitHub)

The universe in a grain of sand

“Webb’s image covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground – and reveals thousands of galaxies in a tiny sliver of vast universe” – NASA

Auditing Economics of Education (771)

It’s that time of the year again! I’ll be teaching my postgraduate Applied Economics of Education course at Stellenbosch University. The course is pitched at the Honors level and runs from the 18th of July to mid-October 2022. The lectures are in-person from 11:15-13:15 on Mondays and in-person STATA pracs on Wednesdays 14:00-16:00, although the lectures are also likely to be live-streamed via Zoom. The full syllabus can be found HERE. If you have a strong interest in the course and would like to apply to be an auditor please complete the Google Form which is inside the course outline. Every year there are a number of local and international auditors that enrich the course by their participation. Approved auditors can join in-person at Stellenbosch (ideal) or electronically via Zoom.

There are a limited number of spaces for auditors and those with a quantitative and/or postgraduate background will have preference, as well as those that can attend in-person in Stellenbosch. Note also that all auditors have to do the readings and hand in the weekly reading reflections as your price of entry. The list of readings can be found in the course outline.

Applications to audit the course close on 13 July 2022.

2030 Reading Panel – Press Release

The full 2022 Background Report is available on the website:

2030 Reading Panel Background Report

On the 31st of January and the 1st of February 2022 former Deputy President Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka launched a new initiative – the 2030 Reading Panel. The Chair (Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka) asked me to be the Secretary of the Panel and to write a Background Report documenting some of the research and evidence we have on reading outcomes in South Africa as well as interventions for which we have rigorous evaluations showing gains in learning outcomes. The full 2022 Background Report is available on the Reading Panel website and I will blog some of the main findings in another post.

In addition to the 2022 Background Report there are 13 Advisory Notes by a range of people working in the space of early grade reading in South Africa:

(1) Brahm Fleisch – The Education Triple Cocktail

(2) Andre Gaum – Learning to Read is a Basic Human Right & Enshrined in the Constitution

(3) Ursula Hoadley – Reading Instruction in Early Grade Classrooms

(4) Godwin Khosa & Dhianaraj Chetty – Early Grade Reading

(5) Janeli Kotze, Gabrielle Willis, Cally Ardington, Stephen Taylor, Nompumelelo Mohohlwane and Carol-Nuga Deliwe – Learning Losses due to the COVID-Pandemic

(6) Noncedo Madubedube, Elizabeth Biney & Jane Borman – Connecting the dots: The Relationship between School Infrastructure and Learning

(7) Mary Metcalfe – What PILO has learned about implementing systemic improvement in reading

(8) Nangamso Mtsatse – Collectively moving towards the same goal

(9) Johan Muller – Changing Demographics and Teacher Quality

(10) Nomlomo Vuyokazi – What are we doing right and what needs to change?

(11) Lilli Pretorius – Factors shown by research to support and enhance reading comprehension

(12) Nick Taylor – What knowledge and skills do teachers need to teach reading

(13) Servaas van der Berg – Measuring what matters

Combined Advisory Notes (single PDF)

South Africa’s “Right to Read and Write”

On International Literacy Day, the 8th of September 2021, The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launched the “Right to Read and Write” at the Constitutional Court. I was one of nineteen authors who contributed to the report over the last two years. I think it is a landmark document and encourage everyone to read it (full report here). I will include only the Preamble and Postscript here to give you a sense of the document, but it is worth reading the whole thing! Minister Motshekga’s short opening speech at the event is also worth watching.


The Right to Read and Write


1.1 Introduction

South African society has one supreme law that stands over and above all others: the Constitution. It is the body of fundamental principles that outlines the legal foundation for the existence of our republic and states the rights and duties of its citizens and those we elect to govern us. One of those fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution is that “Everyone has the right to a basic education” (Section 29(1)(a))

In many senses this particular right is a special right in the Constitution and different from  many others since it is ‘immediately realizable.’ Unlike the other socioeconomic rights in the Constitution – such as the rights to housing, to healthcare, to food, water, security, and further education – there is no qualification to the right to a basic education. There is nothing that says the state must work towards the ‘progressive realization’ of the right to a basic education, or that the realization of the right to a basic education is ‘subject to available resources.’ There are only two socioeconomic rights in the entire Constitution that are not subject to such limitations and progressive realization, and these are: (1) The right to a basic education (Section 29(1)(a)) and (2) Children’s core socioeconomic rights to ‘basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services’ (Section 28(1)(c)) This was not an accident. In their wisdom, the drafters of the Constitution recognized that in addition to other necessary measures of redress, it was only through the systematic prioritization of the next generation that South Africa would be able to transcend the multifaceted and far-reaching consequences of apartheid.

When the South African Constitution was being written, it was expressly noted and understood that education would hold a privileged place in the new democratic dispensation. Neither redress nor prosperity would be possible without it. The Constitution’s mandate to ‘free the potential of each person’ was contingent on the realization of this right for all who live in the country. As Constitutional Court Justice Bess Nkabinde ruled:

‘‘The significance of education, in particular basic education, for individual and societal development in our democratic dispensation in the light of the legacy of apartheid, cannot be overlooked… [B]asic education is an important socioeconomic right directed, among other things, at promoting and developing a child‘s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to his or her fullest potential. Basic education also provides a foundation for a child‘s lifetime learning and work opportunities”

–     Governing Body of the Juma Musjid Primary School v Essay.

While the unqualified right to a basic education has not been legally contested, it is still not entirely clear what is (and is not) included when one speaks about a ‘basic education’. The Constitution itself does not provide an explication of this right which specifies how it is to be realized and what conditions would need to be met for this right to be said to have been realised or not.

In 2013 the Minister of Basic Education prescribed the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure which set out the ‘necessary resources’ that form the minimum core of this right in terms of infrastructure. Subsequent court interpretations of these regulations demonstrate that South Africa now has a set of defined norms for basic physical infrastructure such as running water, electricity, sanitation, and a safe built-environment (Equal Education v Minister of Basic Education 2019 (1) SA 421, ECB), as well as basic educational materials such as one textbook per subject per child (Minister of Basic Education and Others v Basic Education for All and Others [2016] 1 All SA 369, SCA). This has gone some way to make explicit what the State’s minimum obligations are in the fulfilment of this right, at least in terms of infrastructure and textbooks. To that extent it has begun to explicate or ‘unpack’ the meaning of the right to a basic education by specifying its minimum content.

However, what has been lacking in much of this unfolding process is the specification of minimum outcomes that must be met for the right to a basic education to be said to have been realized for an individual. What is the minimum set of knowledge, skills and dispositions that an individual must possess for their right to a basic education to be said to have been realized? Alternatively, are there certain specific measurable ‘core’ outcomes that, if a child is unable to achieve them, one can say definitively that their right to a basic education (or at least some fundamental component of it) has been denied?

It is the contention of this background paper that one of these minimum ‘core’ outcomes with respect to the right to a basic education, is that a child must be able to read and write with understanding at a basic level, in their home language, by the age of ten. Put differently, this fundamental skill is one of the tools by means of which the constitutional promise is to be fulfilled. Unless and until the child is educated to the requisite minimum level, the constitutional promise remains unfulfilled. The purpose of this document is to provide a clearly articulated, evidence-based, and measurable definition of what it means to “read and write, with understanding, at a basic level.” In so doing it aims to operationalize this right by making one additional core component of the right to a basic education explicit. This component would be the “Right to Read and Write.” Whilst it is clear that the right to a basic education envisaged in the Constitution goes well beyond merely the ability to read and write, it is equally clear that if a child is denied this most basic skill (to read and write with understanding) they have at the same time, also been denied the right to a basic education.

In the same way that the government, the courts and civil society now have a shared understanding of the physical resources that are necessary for the realization of the right to a basic education (textbooks, toilets, teachers etc.), the intention of this document is to move towards a similarly shared understanding of the content of the right to a basic education with respect to outcomes, and to do so by providing a clearly articulated, defensible, measurable, and research-informed definition of what it means to read and write at a basic level.


The Constitution of South Africa was, and is, one of the landmark achievements of our young democracy. It sets out the rights and obligations of citizens and those we elect to govern us, as well as charting a course to a non-racial society founded on ‘human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.’ While the Constitution is clear and unequivocal – everyone has the right to a basic education – it is the ongoing task of civil society, government, legislature, and the judiciary to explicate what that means. Rights are not self-fulfilling, nor obligations self-evident.

It has been the aim of this document to put forward a defensible explication of one core component of the right to a basic education, and that is the ‘right to read and write.’ It is our contention here that no child can reach their full potential without being able to read and write for meaning and pleasure. We believe that if that is the case then the onus is on us to find a way to measure this right and whether it has been realized.

By drawing on a wealth of experience and research we have attempted to put forward an evidence-based argument for what it means to read and write at a basic level. It is the role of the Executive branch of government to decide whether it agrees with the above interpretation of this component of the right to a basic education.  And it is the role of the Judiciary to adjudicate whether the Executive’s actions and interpretations of this right are in keeping with the text, spirit, and ethos of the Constitution.

The Right to Read and Write:

“Every child in South Africa has the right to read at a basic level, in their home language, by the age of 10. That is to say, they can read and understand a short and simple text and answer 80% of the literal and straight-forward inferential questions they are asked that are based on that text. Approximately 60-80% of these questions should be classified as ‘Very easy’ or ‘Easy’ questions.

“Every child has the right to write at a basic level, in their home language, by the age of 10. That is to say that they can express themselves in writing by using a collection of simple and related sentences with correct grammar and punctuation.”

Links I liked #32

“Our social imagination is partly constituted by our ruling metaphors, and the key metaphor of the age of meritocracy is ‘the ladder’. As David Cameron put it in 2013: ‘You help people by putting up ladders that they can climb through their own efforts.’ But this may not paint quite as inviting a picture as Cameron hoped. Ladders are confining modes of ascent, which don’t leave much room for choice: there is no overtaking and the direction of travel is fixed, rung by rung. Ladder-speak tends to ignore the fact that ladders are used for descending as much as ascending, and has nothing to say about what happens when someone on the way down meets someone on the way up. And of course there will always be some people who prefer to take the lift. Where, in any case, are all these competitors in the Great Ladder-Climbing Championships trying to get to? The metaphor suggests a once-and-for-all ascent: you climb a ladder to get somewhere; ladder-climbing is not a way of life.”

  • Debate: I came across this debate-by-letters and loved the banter between academics. “Deidre McCloskey & Economists’ Ideas about Ideas.” Read the whole thing –
  • Assessment: SACMEQ is notoriously under-documented. This 2019 Kenya Report on SACMEQ IV (2013) is helpful in that regard. 
  • Martin Gustafsson’s pice in The Conversation about the incoming wave of teacher retirements. Watch this space.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with RTI (Ben Piper et al., who else 🙂 ) have published a series of really helpful reports on:
  1. Structured Pedagogy: How to guides and literature review
  2. Practical language choices for improving Foundational Literacy and Numeracy in sub-Saharan Africa,
  3. Language of instruction in Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Programs in sub-Saharan Africa: The Basics,
  4. Classroom level assessment,
  5. System level assessment
  • Reports: Useful OECD PISA-for-Development report (2020) on out of school youth in 5 countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay & Senegal)

Economics of Education (2021)

It’s that time of the year again! I’ll be teaching my postgraduate Applied Economics of Education course at Stellenbosch University. The course runs from the 10th of August to the end of October 2021, with in-person lectures from 9:00-11:00 on Tuesdays and in-person STATA pracs from 11:00-13:00. The full syllabus can be found HERE doc. If you have a strong interest in the course and would like to apply to be an auditor please complete the Google Form which is inside the course outline. Every year there are a number of local and international auditors that enrich the course by their participation. Approved auditors can join in-person at Stellenbosch or electronically via Zoom. There are a limited number of spaces for auditors and those with a quantitative and/or postgraduate background will have preference. Note also that all auditors have to do the readings and hand in the weekly reading reflections as your price of entry! I’ve included the list of readings for each lecture below:

(1) Inequality in South African education

  1. *Spaull, N. (2019). Equity: A price too high to pay? In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. Collini, S. (2021). Snakes and Ladders. London Review of Books. Vol.43 (17) April 2021.
  3. Pabón, F., Leibbrandt, M., Ranchhod, V., & Savage, M. (2021). Picketty comes to South Africa. British Journal of Sociology. 2021 (72) p.106-124

(2) Sampling, assessment, and trends over time

Much of the economics of education involves analyzing sample-based surveys of educational inputs and learning outcomes. Of particular importance are the four international assessments South Africa participates in which are TIMSS (Gr5 & 9 maths and science), PIRLS (Gr4 reading), SACMEQ (Gr6 maths and literacy) and TALIS (teacher survey).  This session covers issues of inter-temporal comparability, how surveys sample schools, representivity, basic statistical concepts in sampling, interpreting results from cross-national surveys and some of the literature that has looked at this issues in SA and sub-Saharan Africa. This will also be useful for your pracs.

  1. *Van der Berg, S. & Gustafsson, M. (2019). Educational outcomes in post-apartheid South Africa: Signs of progress despite great inequality. In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. *Spaull, N., and 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. (optional extras: Taylor & Spaull, 2015 and Lilenstein 2018 for francophone West Africa)
  3. Singh, A. (2015) How standard is a standard deviation? A cautionary note on using SDs to compare across impact evaluations in education. Development Impact. World Bank. (Online). Available: [Accessed: 11 July 2018]

(3) Early grade reading in South Africa: What do we know?

  1. *Spaull, N. & Pretorius, E. (2019). Still falling at the first hurdle: Early grade reading outcomes in South Africa. In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. *Ardington, C., Wills, G., Pretorius, E., Mohohlwane, N., & Menendez, A. (2021) Benchmarking oral reading fluency in the early grades in Nguni languages. International Journal of Educational Development 84 (2021)

(4) Education in the time of COVID-19 in South Africa

  1. *Ardington, C., Wills, G., & Kotze, J (2021, forthcoming). COVID-19 learning losses: early grade reading in South Arica. Manuscript for RISE conference.
  2. *Shepherd, D. & Mohohlwane, N. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 in education – more than a year of disruption. NIDS-CRAM Wave 5 Working Paper.
  3. Spaull, N. & Van der Berg, S. (2020). Counting the cost: COVID-19 school closures in South Africa and its impact on children. South African Journal of Childhood Education. Vol 10(11).

(5) Teachers and the budget in South Africa: The R200bn question

  1. *Spaull, N., Lilenstein, A., & Carel, D. (2020). The Race between Teacher Wages and the Budget – the case of South Africa 2008-2018. RESEP.
  2. Gustafsson, M. (2012). Incentives for teachers within the salary system. DBE. Pretoria.
  3. Gustafsson. 2020. Selected extracts from teacher demand work.

(6) Government plans for South African Education

  1. *Gustafsson, M. (2019). Pursuing change through policy in the schooling sector 2007-2017. In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. *Van der Berg, S., Gustafsson, M., & Malindi, K. (2020). Education and skills for the economy and links to labour markets in South Africa. Position Paper June 2020. National Planning Commission.
  3. Department of Basic Education. (2020). Action Plan to 2024: Towards the realisation of Schooling 2030. Overview. Full document. DBE. Pretoria.
  4. Presidency (2019). Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) 2019-2024. Presidency. Pretoria

(7) The myth of evidence-based policymaking

  1. *Cairney, P. & Oliver, K. (2017). Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy? Health Research Policy and System 15:35.
  2. *White, H. (2019). The twenty-first century experimenting society: the four waves of the evidence revolution. Palgrave Communications 5(47) 2019.
  3. Ganimian, A. (2017) Not drawn to scale? RCTs and education reform in developing countries. Research on Improving Systems of Education. (Online).  [5 June 2019]
  4. Kremer, M., Brannen, C., & Glennerster, R. (2013). The Challenge of Education and Learning in the Developing World. Science 340, 297 (2013)
  5. Ravallion, M. (2020) Should the Randomistas (Continue to) Rule? Working Paper 27554. NBER Working Paper.

(8) #FeesMustFall: Who should pay for higher education?

This ‘lecture’ is actually a class debate. The class will be split into two opposing teams and the motion is “This House believes that higher education should be completely free for all students who are accepted by higher education institutions in South Africa.”

  1. *Van Broekhuizen, H., Van der Berg, S., & Hofmeyr, H. (2016). Higher Education Access and Outcomes for the 2008 National Matric Cohort. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers 16/16.
  2. Davis Tax Committee. 2016. Report on the Funding of Tertiary Education. (Online).
  3. Chapman, B. (2006) Income Contingent Loans for Higher Education: International Reforms. Handbook of the Economics of Education (Vol 2) pp 1435-1503.

(9) Vouchers & Public Private Partnerships

  1. *Epple, D., Romano, R., & Urquiola, M. (2017). School Vouchers: A Survey of the Economics Literature. Journal of Economic Literature, 55(2), 441-492.

(10) Are we there yet?

This session will discuss South Africa’s current rates of improvement, promising avenues for improvements and key research questions going forward.

  1. *Cruz., L & Loureiro, C. (2020). Achieving world-class education in adverse socioeconomic conditions: The case of Sobral in Brazil. World Bank

Gustafsson, M. (2019). How fast can levels of proficiency improve? Examining Historical Trends to Inform SDG 4.1.1 Scenarios. UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (also see blog here)

1,3m vaccinations behind (FM op-ed)

South Africa is currently in a race against time. As COVID waves come and go, and new variants emerge it is now more clear than ever that there is only one route out of the mess we find ourselves in and that is vaccination. On that front there is both good news and bad.

The good news is that both of South Africa’s vaccines – Pfizer and Johnsson & Johnsson (J&J) – seem to offer strong protection against the Delta variant driving the third wave. So if you’ve been vaccinated and developed an immune response (typically 2-4 weeks after vaccination) you won’t get severely ill from COVID. The other good news is that vaccine acceptance is increasing over time. In an earlier round of the nationally representative National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) we reported that in February this year 71% of South Africans agreed to get vaccinated. In our latest results launched today, this has increased to 76% in April/May 2021.

The bad news is that the Delta variant is twice as transmissible as the original COVID virus, and hospitals are overwhelmed. Private sector hospital admissions in Gauteng, the Free State and the Northern Cape are exceeding the peaks experienced in the second wave. Gauteng alone had more than 4000 hospital admissions in the last week of June and as of 2 July was at 91% hospital capacity (public and private).

Unfortunately, at the end of June only 5% of the population had been vaccinated with at least one dose of a vaccine, well behind countries like Pakistan (6%), Botswana (7%), India (20%), and Brazil (35%), and obviously the US (55%) and the UK (67%). In fact as of the 1st of July South Africa ranked 126th in the world with the same vaccination rate as Libya (5.6%) and Venezuela (5,1%) – both essentially failed states.

Why is this? Originally we were told that supply was the main constraint. Yet we now have 7,4-million doses of the vaccine in our borders and have had more supply than we’ve been able to administer since May. To date only 3-million people in South Africa have been vaccinated. 

We were also told that we didn’t have enough money. Yet in February this year the Finance Minister announced that there was now “total potential funding for the vaccination programme to about R19-billion“ made up of R6.5-billion to procure and distribute vaccines, R2,4-billion for provincial health departments to administer the vaccines and a contingency reserve of R9-billion “given uncertainty around final costs.” Why is it then that five months later we only vaccinate on weekdays and not on weekends? Department of Health Spokesperson Dr Lwazi Manzi explained: “Basically, the provinces indicated they don’t have the budget to be able to pay the overtime over weekends.” And according to the Western Cape Treasury’s estimates that’s correct. They find that ‘operational costs’ amount to R108 per vaccine dose administered (p.102) including contract staff, hiring more nurses, overtime etc. If that figure is correct it will cost provinces R5,8-billion to administer 54-million doses (the number that’s needed to reach 40-million people since Pfizer requires 2-doses. That means that the contingency reserve is necessary and – at least at the time of writing – it had not been released to provinces, despite being technically “available.”

So practically speaking, what does this look like? The graph below shows the daily vaccination numbers from 17 May until 4 July 2021. It shows how vaccinations virtually disappear on Saturday and Sunday each week, as well as on June 16th, a public holiday.

Figure 1: Vaccines per day (17 May to 4 July 2021)

Using the average vaccination rates of the Friday prior and the Monday after, I estimate that between 17 May and 5 July 1,3-million additional shots could have been administered if we vaccinated on Saturdays and Sundays as well as on June 16th. Put differently, we are 1,3-million jabs behind schedule because we aren’t vaccinating on weekends. What this comes back to is state capacity. The South African state does not currently employ people primarily on competence and as a result is not able to implement its own plans, let alone expedite them. In response to a Parliamentary question from the opposition earlier this year, Minister Senzo Mchunu reported that 35% of the public sector’s 9,500 most senior managers in the country (at national and provincial level) “do not have the required qualifications and credentials for the positions they currently occupy.”

Does this help to explain why eight weeks into the national vaccination program we are still unable to either source, unlock, transfer or distribute the funds needed to pay staff for overtime so that they can vaccinate on weekends? How is it that the National Treasury announced R19-billion in available funds in February but in July we are still told by the Department of Health that there is no money? It’s as if we are fighting a forest fire on weekdays and then we send the firefighters home for the weekend because we can’t pay them overtime for Saturday and Sunday, even while the fire rages on.

There is another question about whether nurses should be the only people allowed to administer vaccines. The process is relatively straightforward and given the limited number of nurses in the country and the need to vaccinate 40-million South Africans in a year, others should also be authorised to administer COVID-19 vaccines. This is exactly what the United States has done. In February this year they passed theSixth Amendment to Declaration Under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP) for Medical Countermeasures Against COVID-19. This essentially limits the medical liability of military officers administering the vaccines. As the US Military explains: “The PREP Act allows the Department of Health and Human Services to issue a declaration to provide legal protections to certain military personnel involved in mass vaccination efforts.” As a result the US Army has now administered more than 1-million vaccine doses in America.

Why can’t some of South Africa’s 70,000 Community Health Workers administer vaccines under the supervision of nurses at big sites with clinical oversight? What is the point of issuing a Disaster Management Act (and perpetually extending it) if we don’t actually use it to implement drastic measures to avert the disaster? If the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is obstinate that only nurses can do it, then it should be summoned to Parliament to explain why this is not possible.  Why can’t Parliament issue a similar liability waiver for trained Community Health Workers for the duration of the pandemic? After all, there have now been 3-billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered worldwide with no side effects in 99,99% of cases. This is now the most studied medical event in human history.

The government is already well behind it’s own vaccination plan having only vaccinated 60% of the target for the end of June (3 million of a forecasted 5-million people) and is an entire age-category behind schedule. Currently we are administering less than half (130,000) the number of daily doses required (250,000) to meet the target of 40-million vaccinations by February 2022.

The situation at hand also points to a lack of coherent leadership. The former President, under whose watch thousands of incompetent cadres were deployed to (and remain in) high office, is now en route to prison. Our Health Minister is on paid leave due to corruption and Deputy President David Mabuza is currently in Russia for a “medical consultation.” The Deputy President, who took “long leave” for the Russia trip, is also the Chairperson of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccines.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because the coronavirus pandemic is causing suffering on a scale that we have not seen before in South Africa. The latest Nids-Cram were released today (8 July) and paint a grim picture of the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.

When asked in April and May this year, 10% of South African households with school-going children said that at least one child in their household had not returned to school since the beginning of 2021. That means that school dropout for those aged 7-17 years has now tripled from 230,000 pre-pandemic to 750,000 in April/May, i.e. an extra 500,000 children have dropped out of school during the pandemic. Whether this is temporary or permanent dropout is, as yet unknown, although previous research shows that the longer children remain out of school the higher the likelihood of permanent dropout.

By June of this year the average primary school child has also lost 70-100% of a year of learning compared to previous cohorts. That is to say that the average Grade 3 child in June 2021 knows about as much as the average Grade 2 child in June of 2019. These sorts of losses will take more than a decade to recover. Ongoing rotational time-tables means that children’s access to free school meals is also compromised. While this has increased from 46% in November 2020 to 56% in April 2021, this is still below the pre-pandemic level of 65%. The Department’s own reporting to the High Court confirms this.

Throughout all the waves of NIDS-CRAM respondents were asked whether anyone in the household went hungry in the last seven days because there wasn’t enough money for food. If there was a child in the household another question was asked as to whether any child had gone hungry. Using the latest NIDS-CRAM data, Professor Martin Wittenberg and Dr Nicola Branson at UCT estimate that in April 2021 approximately 10-million people and 3-million children were in a household affected by hunger in the past seven days.

The study also revealed the ways that the pandemic has affected South Africans differently. Although by March 2021 men’s employment had largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels, women’s employment was still 8% lower than in February 2020. To add insult to injury, women have also not benefited from the two COVID-19 government relief grants (UIF-TERS and the R350 SRD grant) at the same rate as men, despite being worse affected by job losses. Women only account for 35-39% of the beneficiaries of these grants.

The latest set of results from NIDS-CRAM (Wave 5) is also the last round of data collection for this research project. The aim of NIDS-CRAM was to collect reliable data on a broadly nationally representative sample of South Africans to help policy-makers and the public make informed decisions in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. It was always scheduled to be five waves, which are now complete. The NIDS-CRAM collaboration, made up of over 30 colleagues and researchers from six South African universities NIDS-CRAM has written 67 research papers over the last year, covering everything from hunger and employment to vaccine acceptance and mental health (all papers are available at and the data is available for download at DataFirst). It has been an incredibly enriching experience, working with such dedicated and collaborative academics united in our belief in the importance of evidence and social justice.

Yet it has also cemented in my mind the critically important role that civil society has to play in holding the line in this democratic experiment we call South Africa. In different ways and at different times civil society has stepped into the gap created by the government and held it to account. The investigative journalists at amaBungane and Scorpio were the ones who exposed the rot of State Capture and the looting of State Owned Enterprises like Transet and Eskom, estimated to be at least R50-billion. And for what? For fancy suits and shitty weddings in Dubai? There is a shamelessness about those who have been exposed. Who refuse to resign in the face of blatant evidence of their corruption and moral debasement. We need to stop calling it “stepping aside.” This is euphemistic at best. These people remain on full pay, perhaps all the way until they go to jail, and even then they may still get them. Just this month it was reported that former ANC councillor Sibongiseni Baba has been sentenced to 10 years in prison after raping a party volunteer – yet he is still paid his monthly salary, despite being behind bars. One wonders if Zuma will still get his R3-million tax-payer funded annual salary when he is in jail. Perhaps that is also for the judicial branch of government to decide. Like civil society the judiciary and independent institutions have held the line, largely driven by the moral fortitude of people like Thuli Madonsela and Justices Zondo and Khampepe. It’s worth dwelling briefly on the powerful role they have played in our current constitutional realignment.

The role of the judiciary

There is a deep sense of poetic justice at play in South Africa’s Constitutional Court at the moment. Ten years ago, Jacob Zuma appointed Mogoeng Mogoeng as the Chief Justice – a contentious appointment at the time. While most of his ten years have been less controversial than was expected, things went south at the end of last year when he opened in prayer at a public event: “If there be any vaccine that is of the devil, meant to infuse triple-six in the lives of the people, meant to corrupt their DNA, Lord God Almighty may it be destroyed by fire, in the name of Jesus.” Soon after this he announced that he would be going on “long leave” until October 2021 when his decade-long tenure was set to come to an end anyway.

In March 2021 President Ramaphosa appointed Sisi Khampepe as the Acting Chief Justice. Originally appointed by Mandela in 1995 as a TRC Commissioner she went on to become a justice of the Constitutional Court and earlier this year she was asked to act as Chief Justice. This was because the Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo (who would normally take the role) had his hands full with the Zondo Commission.

In a 127-page judgment Justice Khampepe lambasted Zuma explaining that his conduct “smacks of malice”, that his accusations were “utterly bereft of supporting facts” and concluded that in the process of dismissing two summons’ from the Zondo Commission and then further dismissing the summons of the Constitutional Court compelling him to testify at the Zondo Commission that he had acted in an “indubitably vexatious and reprehensible manner” and was sentenced to jail for 15-months. Her exact judgment and wisdom are worth quoting verbatim:

“It would be nonsensical and counterproductive of this Court to grant an order with no teeth. Here, I repeat myself: court orders must be obeyed. If the impression were to be created that court orders are not binding, or can be flouted with impunity, the future of the Judiciary, and the rule of law, would indeed be bleak. I am simply unable to compel Mr Zuma’s compliance with this Court’s order, and am thus faced with little choice but to send a resounding message that such recalcitrance is unlawful and will be punished. I am mindful that, ‘having no constituency, no purse and no sword, the Judiciary must rely on moral authority’ to fulfil its functions Acting Chief Justice Khampepe.

Indeed. The last three years have been a moral reckoning for South Africa. The judgment against Zuma has placed the Constitution front and centre in our national discourse showing that everyone is equal before the law, and even presidents can go to jail. Yet that same Constitution also outlines other rights and obligations that we can no longer ignore. As Justice Khampepe reminds us, there are things that tie us together as South Africans that are about more than flesh and blood, or race and class. It is an ideal of a multi-racial country where all have equal worth and where reconciliation is possible.

Yet reconciliation also means sharing wealth and protecting dignity. How can we claim with a straight face that we are all equal when 10-million South Africans and 3-million children experience hunger on a weekly basis? As rich South Africans we are failing our fellow citizens, a fact that is made even more difficult to swallow when one considers that it is we who have benefited the most post-apartheid. I bring this up here because almost everyone reading the Financial Mail is in the wealthiest 5% of South African society (i.e. earning more than R32,000 per month before tax and deductions). From research into the last two decades of tax data we know that the wealthiest 5% of South Africans have been the main beneficiaries of economic growth post-apartheid. While this group is now multiracial, it is also only this group where the big gains have been made.

Research by Aroop Chatterjee, Lĕo Czajka & Amory Gethin presented last month shows that in 1994 the average White South African earned seven times the average Black South African (7-to-1). This ratio has now come down to 4-to-1 in 2019. However, this was entirely driven by the rise in incomes of the richest 5% of Black South Africans. If you exclude that group, the ratio in 2019 is the same as the ratio in 1994. In a nutshell, racial income inequality in South Africa has come down since 1994, but only because of significant income growth among the richest 5% of Black South Africans, not improvements for the poorest 90%. Other research by Ihsaan Bassier and Ingrid Woolard shows that the trend continues right up to the top of the distribution. The real incomes of the wealthiest 1% of South Africa doubled between 2003 and 2016.

At its core this issue is one of moral conviction. In a middle-income country no one should go hungry. In her judgment Justice Khampepe reminds us that the country we aspire to be is founded on rights and obligations made explicit in our Constitution. But it is not only the right to equality before the law but also that “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected…Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water.” No one needs to tell us that it is morally unacceptable that 1-in-6 South Africans experience hunger on a weekly basis. It is a blight on our national conscience and one that we can (and should) do something about. 


This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on the 8th of July 2021.

Nic Spaull is an Associate Professor of Economics at Stellenbosch University and the co-Principal Investigator of Nids-Cram.

Funda Wande appoints Nangamso Mtsatse as new CEO

The Board of Funda Wande is excited to announce that it has finalized its appointment of Nangamso Mtsatse as the new CEO of Funda Wande. Following an open and competitive process with over 80 applications, Nangamso emerged as the best candidate to lead Funda Wande into its next chapter. As Professor Sizwe Mabizela, Chair of the Board and Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University said following the appointment:

 “It was the unanimous decision of the board that Nangamso not only stood head and shoulders above the other candidates but is also an exceptional leader with a clear vision to lead Funda Wande into its future. Nangamso is both passionate about literacy and social justice, but also about Funda Wande. The board has full confidence that Nangamso will build on the very strong foundation that Nic has established at Funda Wande and we look forward to working with our donors and partners in advancing our collective objective of giving young people of this country the best start in life. She has our full support. These are exciting times!”

Nangamso is an experienced and respected leader at Funda Wande. Her previous portfolios include being Funda Wande’s Versioning & Relationships Lead, and most recently, the Head of Literacy. Nangamso is also completing her PhD in Education Policy at Stellenbosch University and an affiliated researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group. She has published her research in the South African Journal of African Languages, the Journal of Education, and the South African Journal of Education (CV here). In January 2019 she was also selected by the International Literacy Association (ILA) as one of the “Top 30 Under 30” researchers around the world. This list “celebrates the rising innovators, disruptors, and visionaries in the literacy field.” Nangamso is currently the Co-ordinator of the ongoing collaboration between Rhodes University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, a partnership aimed at strengthening the Advanced Certificate in Foundation Phase Literacy offered at Rhodes. Last year Nangamso presented at the eNSPIRED International Dialogue on Equity in Education. Her background video gives an excellent overview of the organisation and her role at the time. 

Closer to home, Nangamso has contributed to a number of important initiatives in the South African literacy sphere. She is a board member of WordWorks, a prominent literacy NGO in the country, as well as a Section 11 Committee Member of South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) “Right to Read and Write” and sub-committee chair of African Languages in the committee. She was also one of the co-authors of the influential “Benchmarking early grade reading skills in Nguni languages” report released in October last year.

 What’s in store?

 When asked how she wants to lead, Nangamso says she is a team player and prefers leading collaboratively:

In my culture we have a saying that if you want to go far you have to go together. We are not the only people working in this space and so we need to collaborate, but I also know that we have a big contribution to make as Funda Wande. I’m looking forward to working with the team to get us closer to our 2030 goal: All children reading for meaning by the age of 10 by 2030.”

In her last of four case studies during the recruitment process she presented her vision of Funda Wande to the full Board and explained “How do we get there?” Her five strategic priorities were “(1) People: Attracting high quality people and making Funda Wande a workplace of choice, (2) Programs: How do we adapt to the COVID-19 reality, (3) Systems and Processes: Building the processes we need to avoid burnout and stress, (4) Advocacy and research: Ultimately government has to solve this problem, we can only try and figure out “what works” and what is scalable, and (5) Funding: Although we are fully funded for the next 3 years, Funda Wande is only possible with ongoing financial support from our donors so nurturing those relationships is key.”

Nangamso takes over from Nic Spaull who founded Funda Wande and is the outgoing CEO. Nic is moving out of Funda Wande and will focus on research and advocacy in the basic education space, and also allow him to spend more time on teaching at Stellenbosch where he is an Associate Professor in the Economics Department. Given that there is a lot to hand-over, and on the advice of the Board, there will be a handover period where Nangamso will be ‘CEO Designate’ as the leadership portfolio is handed over from Nic to Nangamso. Nic will remain available for advice and guidance to both Nangamso and the board in the new phase of the organisation.  After the Chair’s announcement that she was the successful candidate, Nic also expressed his full confidence in Nangamso’s abilities to lead the organisation:

“I have no doubt that Nangamso will thrive in this role and that she is the right leader for this next stage of Funda Wande’s journey. We have a saying at Funda Wande that “authority follows observed competence” and Nangamso has proved herself competent at every task she’s been given and every team she manages. She is a very different type of leader to me and she’ll be the first person to tell you that. But I also think that’s why she’s the right person for the job. She has a really deep understanding of, and passion for, the sector and also has the full buy-in and support of the existing ExCo and the management team. That was really important for me.”

It gives us great pleasure as an organisation to welcome Nangamso Mtsatse in her new role as CEO as we move even closer towards our goal of ensuring that all children read for meaning and to calculate with confidence by age 10 by 2030!

Links I liked #31

  • Cool video: Every year the employees of Allan Gray (the bank) nominate and vote on NGOs that they would like funded as part of the Allan Gray Philanthropy Initiative. This year they developed two short videos explaining some of the SA educational context in visual essays. The first one is above and here.
  • Learning losses 1: Martin Gustafsson wrote a useful UIS report in March 2021 on “Pandemic-related disruptions to schooling and impacts onlearning proficiency indicators:A focus on the early grades
  • Learning losses 2: Cally Ardington has written a detailed and thorough report on learning losses as a result of the pandemic and school closures: “Across the reading tasks, learning losses were between 57-70% of a normal grade 2 year.” Importantly rotational time-tables (50% attendance) are still the reality in 70%+ of SA schools and so these learning losses continue to grow every day.
  • SA’s Planning Docs: In August 2020, the DBE published an updated version of their The Action Plan to 2024 – it’s a comprehensive 150-page document that has lots of useful statistics and analysis and sets out their plans for the next 5 years. It also makes it quite clear that early grade reading is now a top priority: “The plan reflects six priorities identified by the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) early in 2020. These priorities are: (1) Foundational skills of numeracy and literacy, especially reading…”. Look at it in conjunction with Presidency’s MTSF 2019-2024 which also states that one of the “Five Fundamental Goals of the next 10 years” is “(4) Our schools will have better educational outcomes and every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning” (p.23) 🙂
  • Reading in SA: A collection of SA authors who contributed to the DBE’s benchmarking in Nguni Languages report have now published their work in IJED here: “Benchmarking oral reading fluency in the early grades in Nguni languages” well done Cally, Gabi, Lilli, Mpumi and Alicia!
  • Reading in the US: Great article showing how nearly half of US states have required (by law) that the science of reading must be used in teacher prep, training and assessment. The North Carolina 2021 law looks especially promising. There was also an interesting Economist article this month “American schools teach reading all wrong
  • Inequality & education in SA: Stephanie Allais and colleagues wrote an article for New Frame titled “Is Education the Answer to Inequality in SA?“, largely based on their 2019 “Rupturing or reinforcing inequality? the role of education in South Africa today” For some reason Stephanie and Yael didn’t send it to me then 🙂 I think there are some interesting points in the article but I don’t agree with their main conclusion that “[learning] outcomes will not change without changing widespread poverty.” But it warrants a more thorough response than just a blog post!
  • Jobs: The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are looking for a “Program Officer – Cape Town, South Africa“, they’re doing lots of interesting work on reading, maths, tech, schools & higher-education in SA so apply if you’d like to work with them!
  • Editorials: Great New Frame article on Johannesburg: “South Africa’s largest city is a world city, the home of jazz, art, politics and insurgent popular aspirations. But it is in precipitous decline, making now the time to act.”  
  • Great French vaccination ad. Vive la France!
  • Also, just for lols Forbes from 2007…