Monthly Archives: July 2015

My opening remarks at the OR Tambo Debate and an afterword…


On the 7th of July the Wits School of Governance together with the OR Tambo Foundation and the UNDP hosted the 4th debate in their series. The title was “Implementing the NDP: Achieving Basic Education Goals”, focussing specifically on accountability. I was on the panel, together with Sizwe Nxasana, the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and Siphiwe Mthiyane. Melissa King and Barbara Dale-Jones wrote an overview of the event for the M&G and you can read that here. I include my opening remarks and one or two comments below.

“Let me start by saying that I have immense admiration and respect for Minister Motshekga. I don’t think there is a single person in this room that is so naïve as to think that your job is easy or uncomplicated. Or that the solutions are straight-forward. In the face of an ongoing crisis in education you have worked systematically and consistently to improve the system by getting the basics in place. And indeed there have been some improvements and signs of success that we should acknowledge and to some extent also celebrate.

Let me highlight the 4 most impressive achievements as I see them.

  • Firstly, we now have a solid well thought-out curriculum that has widespread buy-in from all stakeholders- CAPS. We should not change the curriculum.
  • Secondly, everyday 9 million children receive at least one free school meal and this is paid for the by the State.
  • Thirdly, each child from grades 1 to 9 receives 4 high-quality workbooks per year – 2 for maths and 2 for language. These structure the curriculum by week and provide lessons for teachers to teach.
  • Lastly, we now have national tests – the ANAs – that test children in grades 1-9 in mathematics and languages. With the exception of the census this is the largest single data collection exercise undertaken by government of South Africa. It is colossal

In light of these achievements it is prudent to ask why it is that myself and others continually use the word “crisis” or more accurately an “an on-going crisis” when we refer to our education system. It is not because we are ignorant of these achievements or that we do not appreciate their scale and scope, we do. Rather we use this term because it is the only one that reflects the gravity and severity of the picture we find when we look at the nationally representative datasets in education. Let me give you some examples:

  • At the end of Grade 4 more than half of our students cannot read for meaning and interpretation and a third are completely illiterate in any language.
  • 61% of our grade 9 students did not know that three fifths was equal to 0.6.
  • 76% were not minimally competent in maths or science in grade 9 – that do not know about whole numbers or basic graphs. They are 3-4 years behind the curriculum.
  • Or if we look at the matric pass rate – that much touted, publically celebrated statistic that is also deeply flawed as a barometer of the system, last year that figure was a respectable 76%. But if we look at 100 students that started school in 2003, only 49 actually made it to matric in 2014, only 37 passed and only 14 qualified to go to university. So the ‘real’ matric pass rate is 37% not 76%.
  • And while 14% qualify to go to university, only 10% will actually go to university and only 5% will get a degree. So of 100 kids that start school, only 5 will get a degree. 60 will get absolutely nothing – not a matric pass, not a certificate, not a degree. Nothing!
  • In one study comparing the North West and Botswana, at the end of the year our maths teachers had taught only 40% of the maths lessons they were scheduled to teach, compared to 60% in Botswana.
  • According to an education report by OECD released this year SA ranked 75/76

Still in 2015 – 20 years after democracy the reality is that most Black children in South Africa continue to receive an education which condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm, not the exception. Where 10 million people live on less than R10 a day. This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self-worth and agency. In short, poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social station of their parents, irrespective of their motivation or ability. Low quality education becomes a poverty trap that is virtually inescapable. This is the antithesis of social mobility. It is unacceptable. It is morally despicable. It is also unsustainable.

So how does all of this relate to accountability and this debate? I would argue that almost all of these problems relate to 2 issues: a lack of accountability, a lack of capacity. Too many people cannot do their jobs and have not received meaningful support and training. For too many people – teachers and bureaucrats alike – there are no consequences for non-performance.

Accountability is not, (or should not be) a vague concept. Accountability is another word for consequences. When there are no consequences for non-performance there is no accountability. It isn’t complicated. Currently there are no consequences for non-performance. Not for teachers, not for principals, not for district officials, not for union leaders, not for bureaucrats, not for DDGs. No one. I must add a caveat that I do not believe you can hold people – especially teachers – accountable for things they cannot do. Capacity precedes accountability. This is why we have to offer our teachers meaningful learning opportunities (which we absolutely have not done) before we can hold them accountable for performance. Absenteeism, misconduct etc. by all means, but if a teacher in rural Limpopo cannot do fractions because she was given inadequate training under apartheid and token in-service teacher training post-apartheid, we cannot speak about accountability for her until she has been given a meaningful learning opportunity. Then we can talk about accountability and board exams and all that but only then.

I believe that the major cause of both of these problems is (1) the politicisation of the civil service and the practice of cadre deployment among bureaucrats and teachers, (2) the networks of patronage that permeate our system, (3) The unhealthy relationship between parts of SADTU and the Department of Basic Education – nationally and provincially, particularly in the Eastern Cape.

This all works to the detriment of quality education for the poor. Minister I honestly believe you have done a lot to improve our education system and you are the best education Minister we have had so far, but two areas where you have not succeeded are ending cadre deployment and developing a comprehensive plan for meaningful teacher development.”

[End of opening remarks]

In what was meant to be ‘closing remarks’ for the debate, the Deputy Minister of Education Mr Enver Surty, attempted to discredit most of what I was saying by arguing, at length, that all of this data I was using was “outdated” and on the contrary that “We have a good story to tell.” For those of us who are specialists in using education data, who are professional researchers adept at  using cross-national education data, who work with it daily and present on it at local and international conferences, this rebuke came as somewhat of a surprise. To set the record straight it is worth emphasising four points: (1) education systems do not change rapidly in the space of 2 or 3 years, see chapter 4 of this paper (2) The TIMSS and PIRLS studies were done in 2011 but the report and data were only ready and released in 2013, 2 years ago. (3) The ANAs are not substitutes for these rigorous inter-temporal comparisons – see here, here, and here. (4) Apart from a 1.5 grade-level improvement in the TIMSS 2002–>2011 maths and science improvement there is no other evidence that the educational outcomes in South Africa have improved. I do not have any reason to distrust the TIMSS improvement, but it’s important to remember just how low the post-improvement level of performance really is and that starting from an exceptionally low base this is not that unexpected at all. I am more than happy to expound any of these points in detail and at length if they are still unclear. This is what I do.

Although it was unfortunate not to have a right-of-reply after the Deputy Minister’s misinformed ad-hominem attacks, I am not particularly concerned because the data and consequent research base speaks for itself. It is clear, unambiguous and well documented. I maintain that we have an ongoing crisis in education and that poor children continue to be condemned to hereditary poverty as a direct result of the low quality education they receive at school. Poor quality education was and is a poverty trap. This should be our biggest source of national shame.

Who watches the watchmen? SADTU, SACE and the insidiousness of corruption


In the first or second century AD the Roman satirist Juvenal asked “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” which translates to “Who will watch the watchmen?” or “Who will guard the guards?” – a pithy quote about where ultimate power does or should reside, and highlighting that all are corruptible. The latest manifestation of this seems to be with the South African Council of Educators (SACE). On their website they explain that “SACE is the professional council for educators, that aims to enhance the status of the teaching profession through appropriate registration, management of professional development and inculcation of a code of ethics for all educators.” Unfortunately this is, at best, an aspirational Facebook status.

My first encounter with SACE was during a Section 5 Committee meeting of the SA Human Rights Commission (I am on the advisory committee for education). As part of an investigation into corporal punishment at schools we requested that officials from both the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and SACE attend the meeting and answer our questions. In that investigation there were numerous instances of corporal punishment, I have even heard of one instance of a 9 year old girl that was “disciplined” by the principal and ended up dying in hospital a little while later. As part the same investigation there were numerous stories emerging about some teachers and principals sexually assaulting their students. This was especially offensive to me and became the issue I asked the DBE and SACE about when they were at the meeting. As it turns out, if a teacher is dismissed for sexually assaulting a student – which is very rare (being dismissed that is) – they should be struck from the SACE roll so that they cannot get another teaching job in South Africa. Unfortunately this is just how it works in theory, not in practice. In practice what usually happens is that the provincial education department (who is the employer) dismisses the teacher and will not rehire them at another school in the province. However, during the investigation – and after many explicit questions – it emerged that the provincial education departments do not share a common database of registered or disbarred teachers, either with each other, or with SACE (whose database systems are totally shambolic). So there is nothing stopping this dismissed teacher leaving the province where they sexually assaulted a student and moving to another province where they can be employed as a teacher. There are no electronic records that are available to either the receiving province or the receiving principal. I distinctly remember the awkward shuffling and sheepish looks when I asked the DBE official: “Please can you be explicit and tell us if there are any functional systems currently in place that prevent a teacher who has been dismissed for sexual misconduct from being rehired by another school in another province?” To which the answer was “Our databases are not currently linked so that is theoretically possible, yes.” Which obviously shocked everyone at the Section 5 Committee meeting.

That was the first sign to me that SACE is a totally dysfunctional institution that is all form and very little function. The most recent, and even more disturbing revelation is that it seems that this institution has been captured by the major teacher union SADTU. Sipho Masondo reported in the City Press last week that in October last year the DBE and SACE launched separate investigations into the allegations that SADTU officials were selling teaching and administrative positions (see here for the detailed and damning expose). The DBE’s investigation, headed by a friend of mine Prof John Volmink, is yet to be finalized and released. However, Sipho’s article reports that  “a source within the SACE, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told City Press that Sadtu’s executives approached the council’s chief operating officer, Tsedi Dipholo, and asked her to drop the investigation after the names of the union’s leaders in branches, regions and provinces started cropping up.” – something that she readily complied with. Promptly after this the investigation was wrapped up, has never been released and found no wrong-doing whatsoever. SACE CEO Rej Brijraj explains that “We spent four months investigating. There was a very strong rumour that persisted, but we couldn’t find a single bit of evidence. The rumours were strong, but no evidence or witnesses were brought forward for us to prosecute. We were given leads, but they yielded nothing and we had to stop.

Both of these instances, depicting incompetence and corruption respectively, deserve our serious attention. SACE is the body that is supposed to be regulating the profession and preventing disrepute and degradation, yet it is the very organization that is complicit in this degradation.

We need to ask: Who will watch the watchmen? Who will regulate the regulators? The Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga should request a Ministerial Task Team to look into the functionality of SACE and whether it actually can or does accomplish what it is mandated to do. But, and this is crucial, it is not good enough to simply order a task team, you actually have to do something with the results. When and if the Volmink report is actually released the biggest question I have is “So what?” What happens to the findings and recommendations? Probably the same thing that happened with the Limpopo textbook enquiry – a little more investigation here, a little staff shuffling over there, but essentially no consequences. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues facing our education system – the lack of accountability – i.e. the lack of consequences – in our education system. The process of writing this blog post has given me sufficient energy to edit some of my opening remarks for the OR Tambo Debate which I will publish as a blog post now…

In all of this we need to remember who is most affected by this widespread ineptitude and corruption in the education system. It is the poor, mostly Black African, children of South Africa that are condemned to lives of poverty and unemployment, no different to their parents and care-givers. That is the real tragedy here.

“Early action key to improving maths” – my Business Day article


(The article below appeared in the Business Day on the 6th of July 2015.)

Early action key to improving maths” – Dr Nic Spaull

When people speak about the economic importance of maths and science my mind does not immediately jump to technological innovations such as Google, Tesla or SpaceX — all of which are impossible without the mathematical and scientific insight of their founders and engineers.

I am instead reminded of a tenacious African woman, who my good friend and colleague, Prof Veronica McKay, told me about a few years ago. McKay was assigned the mammoth task of developing a government adult education programme (Kha Ri Gude) for those excluded from education under apartheid, especially the illiterate and innumerate among them.

Asked why she had attended the six-month course, one of the participants replied: “Because I wanted to know how to count. I wanted to know when I have enough money to buy things at the shop. Before, I just had to hold out my hand with my money and the man at the shop would take the money and give me back the change. I don’t think he was giving me the right change, but now I can tell.”

SA aspires to much more than basic financial literacy, and the lofty curriculum and policy documents are testament to this.

There are many improvements in education for which the government does not get enough credit. It has implemented a good curriculum, rolled out workbooks and textbooks to almost all students, and launched annual national assessments that will one day provide the kind of useful information we need.

It also provides school meals to more than 8-million pupils every single day. This is no small feat.

Unfortunately, the major failure has been in meaningful teacher development where little has been done. This helps explain the current reality where the vast majority of pupils still do not acquire even minimal competencies in maths and science during their school years.

The most recent reliable international assessment, the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), tested our Grade 9 students on the international Grade 8 test.

To those outside of academia, it is difficult to convey how abysmally low SA’s average TIMSS maths (352) and science (332) scores really are.

They mean that three-quarters (76%) of Grade 9 pupils in 2011 still had not acquired a basic understanding of whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs and could not recognise basic facts from the life and physical sciences.

Here are some example questions from the test to help illustrate the problem:

  • “Kim is packing eggs into boxes. Each box holds six eggs. She has 94 eggs. What is the smallest number of boxes she needs to pack all the eggs?”

Only 12% of South African Grade 9 students could answer this. The results are poor even in the best-performing province, the Western Cape, which scored 20% on this question, and in the wealthiest 20% of schools where 33% could answer it correctly.

  • “The fractions 4/14 and q/21 are equivalent. What is the value of q?” Only 33% of our Grade 9 students can answer this correctly.
  • Only 61% of Grade 9 students knew that 3/5 is equal to 0.6. This was the easiest question in the test and is covered in the Grade 6 curriculum.

Research that I and others have conducted shows that about 80% of our Grade 9 pupils are achieving at a Grade 5 level in mathematics and that the backlog starts in Grades 1 to 3.

My best reading of the research base in mathematics in SA leads me to conclude that it is ludicrous to focus our efforts on interventions in Grades 9 to 12, when it is clear these learning deficits are already present in Grade 3 — where less than one third of students can calculate a Grade 3-level problem such as “270 + 28 = __”.

Half of Grade 5 students cannot calculate “24 ÷ 3 = ___”.

It is near impossible to remediate four years of backlogs in one or two years. We need to focus on improving the quality of teaching and teacher training in primary schools. The later in life we try to repair early deficits, the costlier the remediation becomes.


Reading to some purpose…


As part of one my research projects we are now focussing on reading in the Foundation Phase (Grades 1-3) and developing a course to train Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading, because, as it turns out, most Foundation Phase teachers don’t actually know how to teach reading (in an African language or in English). We’re getting the best literacy experts in the country on it and developing a world class video-based, year-long, part-time course showing practically what the various building blocks of reading are, why they’re important, how to teach them, and when. It’s still in the concept note phase – and you’ll hear more about it in the next 3 months – but for now here are some great articles and books about reading: