Monthly Archives: November 2014

Some articles/links I liked…


  • The Sutton Trust has recently published a study (2014) “What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research” which looks like a great overview (thanks Joe Muller)
  • Poverty traps and social exclusion among children in South Africa” – 2014 ReSEP report for the SAHRC (summary report here, full report here)
  • The balancing act between the constitutional right to strike and the constitutional right to education” (Deacon, 2014, SAJE)
  • The SARCHi Chair in Teacher Education at CPUT (Prof Yusuf Sayed) has put out a call for post-doctoral students/fellowships (Deadline 10 Dec)
  • Alistair Sparks weighs in on the current situation in South Africa: “There is only one way to rectify the deplorable state we are in, and it surely cannot be long before the stalwarts of the ANC come to recognise and act upon it. Zuma should be asked to step down, even if that requires granting him a blanket amnesty and allowing him to go and enjoy Nkandla. The country and the ANC itself can no longer afford him. His interim successor should then form a government of national unity drawn from all sectors of society, to get the country back on track ahead of the 2019 elections.

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

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

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

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

multigrade and school feeding

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

mud kitchen

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


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

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

tin classroom 2

tin classroom

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

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

First is first…

first is first

workbook is are

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


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

fun in the sun

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

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

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

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

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

grade r unattended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further reading:

“Every child must read” – my M&G article


(The article below appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 21st of November 2014 – available on the M&G website here).

If you’re reading this sentence it means that somewhere, somehow, you learnt to read. Bravo! You acquired the magical skill of translating scribbles into language and making meaning from the print symbols on the pages and screens that permeate our lives.

It really is quite remarkable that a few scrawls on a page can make us weep with joy or seethe with rage as we engage with the heroes, villains and ideas of bygone or future eras. Imagine what your life would be like if you could not read. Imagine what school would have been like if you couldn’t read.

And yet, unfortunately, this is not an imaginary experience for thousands of South African children. It is their daily, lived experience. Constantly struggling to understand the words on a page, let alone deciphering the deeper meaning behind these funny dots and dashes. And this is not their fault.

The human brain is hard-wired to acquire language and almost all children can learn to read in just a few years if provided with the right teaching, resources and encouragement. However, many South African children do not attend schools where these necessary conditions are present. A number of South African studies have revealed that children who cannot read and write properly by grade four end up playing catch-up for the rest of their school days. These children never quite grasp what is expected from them, even as they are told they are failing and must try harder.

Let me explain some of the recent research findings on this very important topic.
In 2011 South Africa participated in an international study called PrePirls (pre-progress in international reading literacy study), which is aimed at assessing the reading ability of grade four children. The study examined a nationally representative sample of 341 primary schools drawn from across the country.

The reason for choosing to assess grade four is not arbitrary, but rooted in an understanding of when and how children learn to read.  The first three years of schooling are regarded as the “learning to read” phase, when children acquire the ability to decode text and convert print symbols into language.  In grade four they enter the “reading to learn” phase as they start acquiring new information through the skill of reading.

Children who cannot read properly by grade four are severely disadvantaged, because they cannot read fluently or read for meaning, and therefore don’t benefit much from higher grades. This places them in perpetual catch-up mode until they begin to approach matric and drop out of school in grades 10 and 11, as 50% of South African students do. Unfortunately the results of PrePirls are truly sobering.

If one looks at the reading achievement of these schools and splits the 341 schools into the better performing half (169 schools) and the worse performing half (172 schools) of the sample, the results speak for themselves. In the top half of schools, 10% of students were completely illiterate. That is to say that they could not locate and retrieve an explicitly stated detail in a short and simple text. These children cannot read at all.

In the bottom half of schools, an unbelievable 51% of students were completely illiterate! After four years of formal, full-time schooling, every second child in these 172 schools was completely illiterate. These 172 schools are statistically representative of half of South African primary schools. (These tests were done in the language that they had been learning in during grades one to three — an African language for most children, before switching to English in grade four).

These children who don’t learn how to read properly are then promoted to the next grade, but never manage to get their heads above water for the rest of their school days.

What to do?

Firstly we have to get the basics right in the Foundation Phase (grade one to three). We need a national reading campaign where all stakeholders (parents, teachers, principals, government officials, the minister, the president) all rally behind this goal: “Every child must read and write by the end of grade three.”

This is the very same goal that Brazil used as the core goal for primary schooling — with much success. One prominent South African researcher, Elizabeth Pretorius, has identified four necessary criteria to ensure all children learn to read:

(1) Teachers need to understand when and how children acquire reading and comprehension skills, as well as understand how to teach reading;

(2) Children need easy access to interesting books in their own language and in English;

(3) Children need to be constantly motivated to read, with reading seen as a pleasurable activity by students and teachers, and

(4) Children need to be given plenty of opportunities to read in and outside of the classroom.

Sadly there is currently no systematic evidence about which of the many interventions currently being implemented in South Africa actually work, and if they do work, which is best. It is of fundamental importance that a national reading strategy be based on scientific evidence regarding what most improves the acquisition of reading in South African schools.

If we do not get reading right in grades one to three, any intervention later in the system will only have a small impact on learning, and consequently the life chances of the poor.  The later in life we attempt to repair early learning deficits, the costlier the remediation becomes. We simply must ensure that every child timeously acquires that magical skill of translating scribbles into language. Our education system depends on it.

For an excellent (and much more detailed) article on reading see Elizabeth Pretorius’ original article here

Links I liked…


  • Excellent 2013 lecture by Michael Fullan on “Schools in need of re-education
  • Her Majesty Susan Sontag talks to us mere mortals about “Modern Literacy
  • The HSRC are looking for a post-doc student in their “Education and Skills Development” portfolio (deadline 17 Nov) – for more details see here.
  • What a tattoo looks like while it’s happening (semi-cringey) – IFL Science
  • Great collection of modern architecture photos
  •  “Writing and style guide for university papers and assignments” – from the University of Ottawa
  • If you want to get mad read this GroundUp article about Marikana “Lonmin’s Broken Promises
  • Shocking new report by Oxfam (“Even it up“) on global inequality and what needs to be done.
  • Quote of the week: “It is worth noting that American students have never received high scores on international tests. On the first such test, a test of mathematics in 1964, senior year students in the US scored last of twelve nations, and eighth-grade students scored next to last. But in the following fifty years, the US outperformed the other eleven nations by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions. This raises the question of whether the scores of fifteen-year-old students on international tests predict anything of importance or whether they reflect that our students lack motivation to do their best when taking a test that doesn’t count toward their grade or graduation.” – Diane Ravitch in the NYRB “The myth of Chinese Super Schools” (I’ve received great feedback from friends and colleagues – many challenging Ravitch’s simplistic generalizations – but I still think the article is quite thought-provoking).

The best SA research article I’ve read this year


This article by Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA) is easily one of the best academic articles I’ve read this year! I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in (1) reading/literacy, (2) the education crisis in SA, or (3) how to get out of the mess we are currently in, should read this article!

Pretorius, E. 2014. Supporting transition or playing catch-up in Grade 4? Implications for standards in education and training. Perspectives in Education. 32 (1), pp 51-76.


This paper describes an intervention programme that was originally intended to support transition to English as language of learning and teaching (LoLT) in Grade 4 in a township school, using a pre- and post-test design. Because the pre-tests revealed very poor literacy levels in both Zulu home language and English, the intervention programme was modified in an attempt to fast-track the learners to literacy levels more appropriate to their grade. This paper outlines the intervention, presents the pre- and post-test results of the English literacy assessments, reflects on the effects of the intervention, and briefly considers some of the reasons for the initial poor literacy performance. Finally, a model for literacy development in high-poverty contexts is proposed to minimise the need to play catch-up in the Intermediate Phase.