Monthly Archives: December 2015

Guest blog: Gabi Wills on “Teacher union membership in SA”


Below is an Extract from Gabi Wills forthcoming PhD thesis:

Chapter 4: Teachers’ unions and industrial action in South African schooling. Exploring their impacts on learning. In Wills (2015, forthcoming) An economic perspective on school leadership and teachers’ unions in South Africa”

Teacher union membership in South Africa

During apartheid, the provision of unequal education to race groups was an instituted policy mechanism to supress the majority of South Africa’s black population. Most notoriously, black people were intentionally provided inferior education through the then ruling party’s “Bantu education”[1] policies. Separate education departments, divided along racial lines, implemented not only distinctive curricula for students but distinctive forms of authority over teachers. As noted by Chisholm (1999), control over white teachers was largely professional in nature where they were consulted in the formation of curricula and given a degree of autonomy in work. By contrast, control over black teachers was intentionally bureaucratic and authoritarian in line with state intentions for social control. Black teachers were closely monitored by inspectors, subject advisors and other representations of white subjugation. In the late eighties, however, large political opposition arose to apartheid in general and particularly its unjust education policies (Govender, 2004). The linkage with the apartheid state of bureaucratic controls over teachers generated considerable teacher resistance which persists today.

As a rough estimate, two thirds[2] of all persons in education (including administrators, management, support staff and privately employed personnel in schools) are formally identified as members of a teacher union in South Africa. In absolute terms, this represents 380 000 members using 2012 data where membership rates and choice of teacher union differ across provinces.

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Figure 4.1: Teacher union membership in South Africa, 2012

If one limits the national teacher union membership estimate to only teachers this estimate is likely to be higher. Armstrong (2014: 4) using the Labour Force Surveys between 2000 and 2007 identified that roughly 76 percent of teachers in South Africa are union members. What these national estimates do not recognise is the interesting provincial dimension to union membership in the education sector which is highest in provinces such as the North West, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumulanga and the Eastern Cape but notably lower in Gauteng Province and the Western Cape.

There are various different teacher unions in South Africa, but by far the dominant union is the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, most commonly referred to as SADTU. Audited 2012 figures indicate that their membership comprised roughly 253 000 personnel which represents two thirds of all registered teacher union members. SADTU membership has also grown substantially over the past twenty years, with membership figures in 2012 that were 2.5 times that in 1996 (Govender, 2004).[3] A clear provincial dimension exists to SADTU affiliation. Their proliferation is strongest in the Limpopo Province where figures from the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council suggest that 82 percent of all unionised education personnel in Limpopo are registered members of SADTU, compared with a figure of 48 percent in the Western Cape. The next largest teachers’ union is the National Professional Teachers’ Association of South Africa (NAPTOSA) with just over 50 000 members as at December 2012. Affiliation to this union is strongest in the Western Cape and the Gauteng Province when expressed as a proportion of unionised teachers in each province. These provincial differences in union membership are worth noting. They may have implications for differences in the balance of negotiating power across provincial chambers of the ELRC and in the functioning of provincial administration departments of education.

Considering the two largest teachers’ unions in South Africa, SADTU and NAPTOSA, both play a role in negotiating conditions of work for teachers in two sets of combined teachers unions[4] in the sector specific ELRC. Both unions fulfil a primary function as bargaining agents for their members, although on the basis of sheer vote size SADTU’s influence in negotiations is considerably more substantive. However, in balancing their secondary functions as political and professional organisations[5] they are divergent in their ideologies (Chisholm, 1999; de Clercq, 2013). Teacher unions represented in what is now NAPTOSA existed in the early days of apartheid with typically white leadership and an agenda largely concerned with the professionalism of teachers. By contrast SADTU, having emerged in direct opposition to apartheid, is understandably more militant, political and concerned with the rights of the ‘worker’ than promoting professionalism (Chisholm, 1999). Moreover, SADTU is an affiliate of COSATU – one of the three members in the tripartite ruling alliance – which prioritises their role as a political organisation over their function as a professional body. As a political organisation, their presence is extensive not only in terms of membership numbers. The organisational structure of the union facilitates an on-site presence across almost all school districts and in the majority of schools.


[1] The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was the designed plan of former Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd. In his own words he said, “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community” (Senate, 1954). The Bantu Education system was established to educate black youth only to a level where they could operate as labourer, worker and servant.

[2] See the notes of Figure 4.1 for a description of how this figure was estimated relying on union membership figures from the Public Services Bargaining Council (PSBC). Calculating teacher unionisation rates with available data in South Africa is not straight forward, where it is not obvious what groups of education personnel are included in the PSBC figures. On the basis of a priori expectations this estimate of 66 percent seems too low but it must be noted that in both the numerator and denominator of the calculation are non-educator personnel such as provincial or district staff, school support staff and privately employed SGB or other staff members at the school level. If one were to limit the numerator and denominator to include only educators, this figure may be higher if more educators than administrators are unionised. It is also noted that some studies have erroneously attributed teacher union membership figures reported by the PSBC as referring to teachers only, when non-teachers in the education sector are also included in these figures. For example, both SADTU and NAPTOSA attract teachers in the public and private sector and other workers in the education sector to their membership base. If this is not recognised, this results in over inflated estimates of teacher unionisation as high as 90 percent in some studies.

[3] The majority of the growth in SADTU’s membership took place between 1996 and 1999 when their membership base grew from 106 000 to nearly 200 000 three years later (Govender, 2004).

[4] At the ELRC, negotiations and consultation takes place between the Employer (the DBE) and two sets of combined trade unions (CTU). The first is the CTU-SADTU where SADTU membership vote weights are combined with the Cape Teachers’ Professional Association (CTPA). NAPTOSA’s bargaining power is established through the combined ‘Autonomous Teachers Union’ (ATU) which includes a number of smaller unions including the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (SAOU), the National Teachers’ Union (NATU), the Professional Educators Union (PEU), the Public Servants Association (PSA) and the Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Unions of South Africa (HOSPERA).

[5] As noted by Cowen and Strunk (2014), there are three main functions of teachers’ unions. The first and most dominant role is that of a bargaining agent for member teachers and the second role is that of a political organisation advocating for teachers. As a political organisation, their function is to act as an interest group, “active not only in promoting or opposing particular pieces of legislation or administrative policy, but also as a force in national, state and local elections” (ibid, 2014: 4). The third role is that of a professional organisation, providing support to individual teachers. In particular, where teacher unions embrace their role as a catalyst for the professionalization of the teaching force, this can yield very positive impacts for educational systems. However, this role is not widely explored in relation to its influence on student achievement and altering district/national resources for education (Cowen and Strunk, 2014: 4).

Q&A with Jonathan Jansen (SAERA SIG)


The Q&A with Professor Jonathan Jansen below first appeared in the SAERA “System-wide Educational Change” Newsletter.

Q&A with Jonathan Jansen

You have recently published two new books on educational change that have received critical attention from the public, How to Fix Schools (2014) and Leading for Change (2015). What is it about your thinking that has attracted so many readers?

First of all, everyone knows that there is something wrong in education, those that work in schools and those that send their children there and the general public. So I think that it helps attract a broad readership because of the focus on the issue in the media. Second, I think people don’t just read books they read authors and so the fact that I have been in the public space a lot more in recent years largely through my column in The Times for example. This gives the books the kind of attention that they would not have gotten otherwise. Third, in both of these publications, I try not to deal with these concerns in abstract academic language but to make them as practical as possible and to be as insightful as possible for people who are not specialists. It is for them to enjoy and to spur them to action. And fourth, I try to insert a sense of hopefulness at the end to each book.

Much of your work centres on educational leadership at various levels, particularly the role of leaders in transforming relationships. Can you talk a little about how you conceptualise the relationship between leaders and leadership at institutional level and system-wide policy or programme driven change?

I have more or less given up on the ability of system leaders to be able to make change from the top. I have been around too long to believe that this is even possible.
As you know in the early days of the transition, during and after the days of NEPI, I sat on committees of government when there was excitement about being able to say something worthwhile and there was a fair chance that you would be heard by the minister or the DG. I don’t have that sense anymore. My sense is that critics and public intellectuals are being shut out of these kinds of spaces. So I made a conscious decision to engage through visible practices of leadership. Sometimes these gain the attention of those in higher authority. Idon’tthinkwehavea government that is attentive enough or serious enough about educational change to allow practice and research to inform policy. For example, the most profound piece of practical research ever done in the history of this country is the National Development Plan. The diagnosis is profound. And yet, the government seems unable to absorb the good thinking and sound data into development actions. In saying this, I have not strayed too far from my work on the symbolic functions of policy. That is not to say that I am cynical or unpatriotic. Quite the opposite. There is limited space time and space to make a difference. For me, I am able to do this, for example, by working on projects like How to Fix Schools by providing books and videos to all high schools in the country with training support where required.

This doesn’t require working directly with government at national, provincial or local levels on policy.

What do you consider to be the key research areas to focus on for young and mid-career researchers interested in leadership and system- wide educational change?

The first thing to be said to young and mid-career scholars working on system-wide educational change is that it is time for bold new ideas and approaches to the subject. In other words, instead of replicating the kinds of things senior scholars like myself, Pam Christie and Jo Muller have done, a new generation needs to ask different kinds of questions and experiment with new methodologies. The upcoming generation of scholars need to provide new insights about the persistence of certain kinds of problems built into the system of education. Second, we need to move away from the fidelity perspective in policy studies. Too many policy studies still focus on how faithfully people implement this or that policy. When there is a big gap, they explain it as the consequence of ‘stubborn teachers’ or think that policies are ‘stupid’. We need to move beyond this fidelity approach to policy studies and introduce new questions about the relationship between policy and practice. This will take us away from stale formulations. Third, I also think we need to move away from a pre-occupation with analyses of exceptional cases. When we do use them, we need take a fresh look at how they are used. Finally, I think we need to shift our focus from the problem of change to the problem of continuity.

The System-wide Educational Change SIG has had its inaugural meeting this year in Bloemfontein at SAERA. What do we need to do as an emerging research community to build scholarship in our field?

We need to get more people with great potential into the field. That must be the number one priority. We need to connect them with scholars and scholarship around the world. It is not sufficient that they do their PhD studies at UCT, Wits or the Free State. New scholars with great potential need to spend time with people like Alma Harris in the UK or Andy Hargreaves at Boston College. The capacity to speak to local problems in intellectually powerful ways means knowing about and being fluent with educational change discourse and practices in other parts of the world. This would allow us to be theoretically courageous. As you know I have often say that you cannot get very far at UCT without referencing Bernstein or Bourdieu, at UWC without referencing Marx and Frere, and Stellenbosch without van der Walt or van der Stoep. Getting out will allow people emerge from the deeply entrenched tracks of theory and method. Broadening intellectual life requires being international and comparative in focus. Advanced scholars these days need more than a PhD and for a good post-doc experience, they need wider exposure.

We know that you tweet and have a strong presence on YouTube. How should our research community be engaging with the new media space?

This is an important issue less for myself than for a new generation of scholars. I really cannot see how a new PhD scholar in the post 2015 world can work unless they are connected to a whole lot of sites and platforms for their day to day research. Online professional networks provide a platform for your ideas, for your CVs, for the circulation of your research papers. These new media spaces allow for wider audiences to actively engage with your ideas and scholarship. The people I spoke about earlier, Alma and Andy use twitter to give

the latest updates on the papers they are presenting at conferences in Malaysia and Australia. I’m amazed at how a bunch of us get tagged and can engage with their ideas through the simple medium of twitter. I have just recorded a series of lectures on leadership and research that will go on YouTube. And we will see the responses from around the world. We are certainly not going to get far unless there is a consciousness about social media and the technical ability to navigate with these new spaces.

What would you want to see us doing with the SAERA SIG newsletter?

I’m excited about the potential of the newsletter. It can allow us to know more about what everyone is doing around the country. I often get surprised about research that is going on in some institution or another, and I think of myself as being in touch. The newsletter is a forum for sharing new ideas, new questions, and new methodologies. It can also showcase the experts in specific areas. For example, Brigette Smit knows a lot about computerised qualitative data analysis. It also provides a space to highlight what is happening around the world. The newsletter can also stimulate a dialogue between up- and -coming scholars and established academics. I’m amazed at how many emails I get from young scholars asking advice and requesting to be mentored. The newsletter would provide an organised platform for this.

Links I liked (and some personal reflections)


  • Taylor, N. 1989. Falling at the First Hurdle: Initial encounters with the formal system of African education in South Africa. Research Report #1. EPU. (via JET Education). – an old but important report that is not in the public domain yet (as far as I’m aware) – thanks JET for scanning this.

  • Improving learning in primary schools of developing countries: A meta-analysis of randomized experiments” – Patrick McEwan (2015) (via Servaas van der Berg).
  • The independent Task Team led by Prof John Volmink, which was appointed to look into the ‘jobs-for-cash’ scandal exposed by CityPress last year, has found that SADTU has a ‘stranglehold‘ over the State in provinces such as the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. These scandals sometimes turn deadly when the ‘right’ candidate is not appointed. On this topic I would highly recommend Gabi Wills’ new article “Informing principal policy reforms in South Africa through data-based evidence.” To give you the highlight: The cohort of principals that are currently in the system are, on average, much older than they were in the past meaning that there is soon to be a wave of principal retirements. Whereas in 2004 only 17% of principals were aged 55yrs+, in 2012 that figure was 33%! If these principals retire at 60 this means that between 2012 and 2017 there will be about 7000 principal replacements! (remember there are only about 24,000 public schools in SA).
  • This latest report shows that the South African Council of Educators (SACE) is a toothless dog, as I have argued before. Earlier this year SACE ran their own investigation into the exact same jobs-for-cash scam and could not find “a single bit of evidence” that there was corruption in the appointment of teachers and principals in SA. Subsequently CityPress has claimed SADTU ‘told SACE to end their investigation” after the names of top SADTU officials started cropping up in the investigation. So how is it that SACE ran an investigation on the same issue at the same time and found no evidence while Volmink’s team found multiple examples of corruption, and 13 of the cases were so strong that they could already be passed on to the police? Go figure. Minister Motshekga needs to put a target on SACE and reform the entire organization. It is rotten through and through.
  • Holstee have come up with a set of 10 questions to ask yourself about the year that was. Reflection. Contemplation. Good stuff.
  • I’m re-reading Henri Nouwen’s “Reaching Out” – the book where he outlines his understanding of spirituality from the Christian perspective. It’s lovely, not too preachy or crispy-clean / three-bags-full-sir Christianiaty which I have little tolerance for. One quote:

“When loneliness is haunting me with its possibility of being a threshold instead of a dead end, a new creation instead of a grave, a meeting place instead of an abyss, then time loses its desperate clutch on me. Then I no longer have to live in a frenzy of activity, overwhelmed and afraid of the missed opportunity” – Anonymous in Nouwen’s Reaching Out p35

All models are wrong but some are useful.

— George Box (via Farnam Street Brain Food)

I am really enjoying poetry for the first time in a long time…

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” – T.S. Elliott

Also Pablo Neruda.

It was also my birthday last month which started in tears and ended in champagne with a view! Ad Astra Per Aspera!


Photo credit: Michael Chandler (@MrChandlerHouse)

Important new SA education research (SAJCE Special Issue)


As part of my postdoc at Stellenbosch University and Stanford University I have been managing a large research project commissioned by the SA Presidency and funded by the EU in the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development (PSPPD for short!). The aim is to identify the ‘binding constraints’ in the SA education sector – more on that in the coming months. As part of that project we asked Elbie Henning if we could dedicate a special issue of the South African Journal of Childhood Education (SAJCE) to the research emerging from the project. As the editor she agreed and we asked Nick Taylor (JET) and Thabo Mabogoane (Presidency) to be the guest editors for the special issue. That special issue was published online last week and there is no pay wall (viva open access!). I have included the abstract for each article as well as links to the full text for each one. I would strongly recommend reading Nick and Thabo’s editorial if you don’t have time to read through all the articles. They provide a good overview of the key findings. The research here covers a number of fields ranging from ECD, matric assessment, reading, teachers, principals, and education data.

Editorial: “Policy research comes of age in South Africa” (Nick Taylor and Thabo Mabogoane)

Investment in Early Childhood Development (ECD) has the prospect of cultivating potential within individuals and can assist in bridging the social equity gap from a very young age. Over the past decade Grade R has been the strongest policy lever used by the Department of Basic Education to improve early learning. The National Development Plan calls for universal access to two years of early childhood development prior to entering Grade 1. This paper explores the merits of this proposal, given the specific South African context. More specifically, this analysis intents to bring new information to bear on three matters. The first relates to the demand-side and aims to identify participation trends among four and five year olds. The second objective is to consider the supply-side and aims to understand the policy space in which pre-Grade R will function, the quality and quantity of infrastructure already in place, and the expertise of ECD practitioners. The final question considers the implementation of a universally accessible pre-Grade R within a constrained system and the requirements to ensure that it will have a significant impact on those children most in need.
Much hope is placed on education systems to reduce socioeconomic learning gaps. But in South Africa, uneven functioning of the school system widens learning gaps.This paper analyses education performance using ANA data. Weak calibration and inter-temporal or inter-grade comparability of ANA test scores limit their usefulness for measuring learning gains. However, relative performance provides meaningful information on learning gaps and deficits. A reference group that is roughly on track to achieve the TIMSS average is used to estimate the performance required in each grade to perform at TIMSS’ low international benchmark. By Grade 4, patterns across quintiles of on track performance approximate matric exemption patterns. Viewed differently, academic and labour market prospects may be bleak for children who are no longer on track. Improvement in outcomes requires greater emphasis on the Foundation Phase or earlier, before learning deficits have grown to extreme levels observed by the middle of primary school. This statement is true whether deficits arise from weak early instruction, or simply because a disadvantaged home environment requires early remedial action. The emphasis on the early grades that this analysis of the ANAS suggests is contrary to the conclusions drawn from the ANA results by policy makers, that weak test scores in Mathematics in Grade 9 require major interventions in that grade.
The ability to read for meaning and pleasure is arguably the most important skill children learn in primary school. One integral component of learning to read is Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), defined as the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with meaningful expression. Although widely acknowledged in the literature as important, to date there have been no large-scale studies on ORF in English in South Africa, despite this being the language of learning and teaching for 80% of ESL students from Grade 4 onwards. We analyze data provided by the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) of South Africa, which tested 4667 Grade 5 English Second Language (ESL) students from 214 schools across rural areas in South Africa in 2013. This included ORF and comprehension measures for a subset of 1772 students. We find that 41% of the sample were non-readers in English (<40 Words Correct Per Minute, WCPM) and only 6% achieved comprehension scores above 60%. By calibrating comprehension levels and WCPM rates we develop tentative benchmarks and argue that a range of 90-100 WCPM in English is acceptable for Grade 5 ESL students in South Africa. In addition we outline policy priorities for remedying the reading crisis in the country.
This study analyses information and feedback from matriculation level continuous assessment in the South African education system. Continuous assessment (CASS) at the time carried a 25% weight in the final matriculation (Grade 12) mark, and it provides feedback that affects examination preparation and effort. Weak assessment in schools sends wrong signals to students that may have important consequences for the way they approach the final examination. Moreover, similarly wrong signals earlier in their school careers may also have affected their subject choice and career planning. This study compares CASS data to the externally assessed matric exam marks for a number of subjects. There are two signalling dimensions to inaccurate assessments: (i) Inflated CASS marks can give students a false sense of security and lead to diminished exam effort. (ii) A weak correlation between CASS and the exam marks could mean poor signalling in another dimension: Relatively good students may get relatively low CASS marks. Such low correlations indicate poor assessment reliability, as the examination and continuous assessment should both be testing mastery of the same national curriculum. The paper analyses the extent of each of these dimensions of weak signalling in South African schools and draws disturbing conclusions for a large part of the school system.
In the past decade there has been a notable shift in South African education policy that raises the value of school leadership as a lever for learning improvements. Despite a growing discourse on school leadership, there has been a lack of empirical based evidence on principals to inform, validate or debate the efficacy of proposed policies in raising the calibre of school principals. Drawing on findings from a larger study to understand the labour market for school principals in South Africa, this paper highlights four overarching characteristics of this market with implications for informing principal policy reforms. The paper notes that improving the design and implementation of policies guiding the appointment process for principals is a matter of urgency. A substantial and increasing number of principal replacements are taking place across South African schools given a rising age profile of school principals. In a context of low levels of principal mobility and high tenure, the leadership trajectory of the average school is established for nearly a decade with each principal replacement. Evidence-based policy making has a strong role to play in getting this right.
This research makes use of hierarchical linear modelling to investigate which teacher characteristics are significantly associated with student performance. Using data from the SACMEQ III study of 2007, an interesting and potentially important finding is that younger teachers are better able to improve the mean mathematics performance of their students. Furthermore, younger teachers themselves perform better on subject tests than do their older counterparts. Identical models are run for Sub Saharan countries bordering on South Africa, as well for Kenya and the strong relationship between teacher age and student performance is not observed. Similarly, the model is run for South Africa using data from SACMEQ II (conducted in 2002) and the relationship between teacher age and student performance is also not observed. It must be noted that South African teachers were not tested in SACMEQ II so it was not possible to observe differences in subject knowledge amongst teachers in different cohorts and it was not possible to control for teachers’ level of subject knowledge when observing the relationship between teacher age and student performance. Changes in teacher education in the late 1990s and early 2000s may explain the differences in the performance of younger teachers relative to their older counterparts observed in the later dataset.
This paper provides an overview of the various datasets pertaining to education in South Africa that are informing or could inform policy making in education. The paper serves as an inventory for anyone interested in understanding what data is available, how it may be accessed, what the quality of the data is and in what formats it may be accessed. The paper is divided into three parts. The first part provides a description of existing education datasets and the basic data elements contained in each of these datasets. When discussing each of the existing education datasets, the paper addresses the quality of the education data available in South Africa. The first part also refers to the policy implications and the important role that data plays in policy-formulation. No information system on its own is comprehensive enough to provide all the information needed in strategic decision-making. Hence, part two of this paper discusses the need for data integration as an important data management strategy. The third part examines the effectiveness of implementing a learner unit record system nationally in comparison with the EMIS system that is currently in place and that is based on aggregate or summary institution–level data.


The full Special Issue can be found here.

Links I liked


  • It is worth reading and re-reading the DBE’s “Second detailed indicator report for the basic education sector” published last year. The infrastructural backlogs in the Eastern Cape particularly are truly unbelievable.
  • The MEC of Gauteng has proposed rotating principals every September in an effort to curb corruption. As a friend of mine said “It takes at least 3 years to find your feet in a new school – this is like school leadership musical chairs. It’s ludicrous.” I agree.
  • New IJER Special Issue on Teacher Rounds, like medical rounds but for teaching practice.
  • Instil Education – a private teacher development startup in SA – are looking for an “Instil Fellow” and a “Director of Teacher Development” – links here.
  • I’m currently reading through one of my masters students dissertations and came across this lovely quote by Martha Nussbaum:
  • “Nothing could be more crucial to democracy than the education of its citizens. Through primary and secondary education, young citizens form, at a crucial age, habits of mind that will be with them all through their lives. They learn to ask questions or not to ask them; to take what they hear at face value or to probe more deeply; to imagine the situation of a person different from themselves or to see a new person as a mere threat to the success of their own projects; to think of themselves as members of a homogeneous group or as members of a nation, and a world, made up of many people and groups, all of whom deserve respect and understanding” – Nussbaum (2006, p.387).
  • I am currently staying with a friend and his family and made a few meals from Nigel Slater’s “Tender: Volume 1” which is lovely. My kind of a cookbook.  Kathleen Alcott captures the appeal in her New Yorker article
  • Slater is the writer for those of us who have ended up in the kitchen because transforming chopped vegetables and seasoned meats into complex dishes makes us feel that we have acted capably for the sake of our own well-being, and for the well-being of those we love. The hours I spend bent over an evolving meal are, as I believe they are for Slater, a step in the direction of the person I want to be and the home I’d like to have, even if I am frequently not that person, even if I do not come from that type of home. We conceive who we are as we conceive the meal in front of us.”
  • Two documents that will be helpful for those in government and in the NGO world. They are “Database of potential funders for municipalities” and in a different version: Database of potential funders (both from the CSI Trialogue Newsletter)

NEEDU 2013: Moving from Form to Substance (Guest blog post: Gabrielle Wills)


NEEDU 2013: Moving from Form to Substance

Guest blog post by Gabrielle Wills

The NEEDU 2013 report entitled “Teaching and Learning in Rural Primary schools” has finally entered the public domain. Subsequent to the release of the first NEEDU 2012 report, sensational headlines in the press presented certain findings that were isolated from the wider objective of the report. This potentially misrepresented both the objective of the report and the much needed role of NEEDU, which (as its name suggests) is the national evaluator of education. It is no surprise then that the 2013 report has been withheld from public view, delaying constructive dialogue and systems thinking that will emerge out of this insightful material. Compared with the press’ responses to the release of NEEDU 2012, media reporting has been somewhat less damaging in its representation of the findings this time round. However they have still not conveyed the most pertinent messages of the report. This article is intended to direct the reader to the report’s substance.

Before considering the details, a noted conceptual contribution of the report is this: it moves towards being systemic in its evaluative approach, even when considering individual elements that make up the whole. In Lant Pritchett’s book “Rebirth of Education” he draws on Howard Gardener’s (1991) evocative phrase, arguing that we live with an “unschooled mind” about systems. Many activities and research undertaken in the field of education and education economics are modular, focusing on aspects or isolated interventions without considering how these link together within the wider system. NEEDU 2013 moves beyond just a discussion of just individual symptoms of a broken system, of which we are becoming acutely aware (for example poor teaching content knowledge and absurdly low levels of learning in the classroom), getting closer to the institutional inefficiencies that must be addressed before we can move forward.

Much of the discussion of the report is framed under two headings: accountability and instructional leadership. The first is a term with which most economists are well-familiar (and our education system far less so). However the notion of ‘instructional leadership’ is used in the education administration literature, usually in reference to school leaders and the extent to which they organise the school environment to focus on the core business of the school, namely learning. The report extends this terminology to wider administration at the district, provincial and national level to consider that the management of curriculum, assessment and resources will have a strong bearing on learning improvements.

“Instructional leadership may be thought of as the ensemble of processes, operating at different levels of schools, and directed towards leading the system to improved quality (NEEDU 2013, pp 13)”.

One of the most important processes within this ensemble is the management of human resources and particularly the post provisioning process, recruitment and promotion, and professional development. “HR management is the single most important tool available to PDEs (provincial directorates of education) in giving effect to curriculum policy. It provides the tools for the optimal deployment of the costliest and most important resource, educators.” The discussion draws our attention to how provinces have lost control of the post provisioning process, which has the largest budgetary implications for the department (and arguably national spending). The provincial personnel-non-personnel spending split should be 80:20 but has become increasingly skewed towards personnel, impeding on the system’s ability to deliver non-personnel resources to schools.

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Without discipline in spending, the stability of provincial departments to execute functions is severely threatened. This has far reaching consequences for system functionality. It follows that the first three recommendations of the report, and rightly so, are that post provisioning norms and standards need to be unambiguously communicated and applied where strengthening education management information systems aids this process. It also highlights how the process of post provisioning and the recruitment and promotion of personnel must be removed from the influence of the predatory behaviour of organised interest groups.

Strongly related to instructional leadership, the report raises the importance of monitoring and evaluation required within education. However, much of what is being done in this regard takes on a ‘form’ of these things yet lacks any substance. This quotation sums it up well:

“.. in large parts of the system and with respect to a number of instructional leadership processes, both systems management and teachers are going through the motions, with little impact on the objects of their attention… Activity does not necessarily signify progress: there is a great deal of instructional leadership activity throughout the system, but much of it is undertaken at too superficial a level to make any impact on the quality of teaching and learning If going through the motions is the first step towards effective instructional leadership, then engaging with the substance of the activities is the next (NEEDU 2013, pp 48).”

 This is an acutely important observation. In reading recent Annual Plans and Annual Reports prepared by the DBE there is great deal of activity and forms of monitoring taking place. In many ways, some activities have been admirable and NEEDU 2013 directly acknowledges such successes. Yet many activities are divorced from the objective of improving learning. Consider the following examples:

  • The quality of management in school is being monitored using perfunctory checklists of certain documents such as school improvement plans (SIP) and up-to-date records. But the majority of schools have a SIP and documents can readily be organised and kept up to date even in the presence of incompetent leaders. What is required is hiring the best leaders, on the basis of expertise not years of service or political affiliation. What is required is monitoring their performance using proven instruments of assessment rather than a checklist of activities accomplished.
  • There is no doubt that the introduction of ANA has signalled a major step forward in monitoring whether the system is working. However these are neither standardized tests in the sense that year-on-year comparisons are possible, nor are the majority of schools and districts using these effectively to identify learning gaps. ANA is a form of monitoring yet currently lacks substance in influencing learning or even simply monitoring systemic progress.

While focusing on institutional inefficiencies, NEEDU 2013 does not shy away from obvious problems of addressing teaching in the classroom. In recommendations five and six, the need for a roll-out of a proven reading and writing programme as well as primary numeracy and mathematics programme is expressed. Recommendation nine focusses on addressing teacher proficiencies through educational development, calling for considerable investigation into the teacher education sector and whether it is equipping graduates with necessary competencies. Despite great intentions to improve education and accompanying strategies, it is currently not possible given inherent capacity constraints of both teachers and administrators.

The time of window dressing activities that hide systemic weaknesses has continued for too long. We must move away from forms of activity that mimic best practice while neatly steering away from threatening fundamentals on the surface. Systemic weaknesses must be seen and acknowledged for what they are, and action taken to address them. In this regard, the recommendations of the report should be strongly considered.


Gabrielle Wills is a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University and is part of the RESEP team. Her latest research is titled “A profile of the labour market for school principals in South Africa” which she presented at a conference earlier this year (PPT here).

Assessing oral reading fluency – some resources for teachers and researchers

reading ORF

Over the past year I have been doing some research on oral reading fluency (ORF) with Kim Draper (CDE) and Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA). The journal article version of my paper with Kim should be available later this month in the SAJCE but you can read a Working Paper version here and the abstract at the end of this post. Lilli and I are in the process of submitting our article to journals so there is no version currently available, but there should be one early next year.

reading fluencyFor those who are unfamiliar with oral reading fluency, it is the speed at which written text is reproduced as spoken language, or put more simply, it is how quickly and accurately you can read aloud. It is one of the components of the “Big 5” which originated in the National Reading Panel in the US. Although this is a fundamental component of reading, it is rarely assessed in South African schools.

The way one usually goes about testing oral reading fluency is to sit down with a student 1-on-1 and ask the student to read a specific passage aloud. While the student is reading the passage the assessor times the reading and also follows the text on her own copy of the passage, marking any errors. At the end of the reading, or after one minute (depending on how one is administering the test), the assessor records the time, totals the number of errors and then can calculate a score called “Total Words Read Correctly Per Minute” or WCPM. This is calculated as the total of all the words in the passage up to where the student was at one minute, and then subtracting the total number of errors to give Words Correct Per Minute. Given that the same passage is used for all students this method creates a measure that is comparable across students or schools.

In 2013 the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) conducted a study where they tested the oral reading fluency of 1772 Grade 5 students (all English Second Language students) from 213 schools in rural areas. The results of that study can be found here. Kim Draper and Nick Taylor were the lead researchers on this project.

A few days ago a principal from a primary school in South Africa emailed me to ask if there were any books that I would recommend that he reads over the holidays (for those interested I recommended this book and this one). But it reminded me that it would be helpful to post a link to the oral reading fluency assessments that NEEDU used to test the grade 5 students in their 2013 sample. That way other researchers can use the same tools and compare their results to those of NEEDU, and also so that primary school teachers can see how to assess oral reading fluency, with the aim of doing their own oral reading fluency assessments. So here they are 🙂 – all the materials used by NEEDU are available in THIS appendix. That includes the two reading comprehension passages, the questions associated with them and the instructions to the ORF assessors.

For those who want to assess first language English speakers or to assess other grades, I would also recommend looking at the “Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading: Ongoing Progress Monitoring, Oral Reading Fluency Grades 1-5” which has a number of passages for each grade.

If you’re a teacher or a researcher and have conducted your own oral reading fluency assessments, I’d love to hear about how you did it, what lessons you learned, if the materials are available online etc. Please post any comments or links below.



The ability to read for meaning and pleasure is arguably the most important skill children learn in primary school. One integral component of learning to read is Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), defined as the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with meaningful expression. Although widely acknowledged in the literature as important, to date there have been no large-scale studies on ORF in English in South Africa, despite this being the language of learning and teaching for 90% of students from Grade 4 onwards. As part of the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) of South Africa, we collected and here analyze data on 4667 grade 5 English Second Language (ESL) students from 214 schools across rural areas in South Africa. This included ORF and comprehension measures for a subset of 1772 students. We find that 41% of the sample were non-readers in English (<40WCPM) and only 6% achieved comprehension scores above 60%. By calibrating comprehension levels and WCPM rates we develop tentative benchmarks and argue that a range of 90-100 WCPM in English is acceptable for grade 5 ESL students in South Africa. In addition we outline policy priorities for remedying the reading crisis in the country.