Monthly Archives: March 2016

Links, presentations and new research


Links I liked:
  • The story of Judge Lex Mpati who went from being a petrol attendant after matric to the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal and Chancellor of Rhodes University where he studied (bartending on the side to pay for his studies). Such an inspiration that we have people like this who have gone from the very bottom to the very top.
  • The World Economic Forum (WEF) has a new report out titled “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology.” (picture above taken from here). Interesting. Would like to see more research on this. (Again I reiterate that there isn’t anyone looking at grit – ala Duckworth – in South Africa).
  • The “What Works Clearinghouse” funded by the US Department of Education is an exceptional piece of scientific wisdom. Reviewing the evidence and coming up with recommendations on “what works” – what a brilliant (and obvious/logical) idea! Anyone in SA want to take this on? 🙂  (Thanks John Aitchison for reminding me of this).
  • NATURE has published a “Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims” – Great!
  • Great Quartz article taking a behind-the-scenes look at the Hillary Campaign and how Google’s top dog (Eric Schmidt) is funding a startup that provides analytics support.
  • Labyrinth of Lies” (2015) – great German film about prosecuting those responsible for the atrocities at Auschwitz, and this at a time soon after WW2 when key Nazi officials remained in high office in Germany. I watched this on the plane to Vancouver and was particularly moved by the scene where Jewish survivors explain what happened to them at Auschwitz (at the time this wasn’t discussed in Germany). The dialogue goes silent and all you see is the faces of the secretary transcribing the accounts in disbelief.
  • Knight Lab Timeline – Great resource to make Timelines for presentations. Thanks Shelanna Sturgess!

Some presentations I’ve given in the last month:

Some new research

  • Schooling inequality, higher education and the labour market: evidence from a graduate tracer study in the Eastern Cape, South Africa” 2015 article by Michael Rogan and John Reynolds comparing graduates from Fort Hare and Rhodes ABSTRACT: An emerging body of research has shown that there are large inequalities in access to higher education in South Africa. There remains a gap, however, in identifying how factors such as schooling background, academic performance, race and gender are linked with key higher education outcomes. In particular, the significance of these factors for first-choice degree attainment at university and in the subsequent transition to the labour market are of interest. This paper addresses these questions by presenting a descriptive and multivariate analysis of data collected through a tracer study which interviewed graduates from two Eastern Cape universities. The results suggest that schooling history, race and gender are associated with career choice and unemployment. These findings have important implications both for equity and for the efficiency of higher education institutions. The article concludes with a discussion of potential policy responses and the implications for equity in higher education.
  • Learning from Failure: why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved” by Sheringold (2015)
  • System-wide improvement of early-grade mathematics: New evidence from the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics StrategyB Fleisch, V Schöer, G Roberts, A Thornton – International Journal of Educational Development 2016 ABSTRACT This article reports on a two-year evaluation of the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS), an innovative system-wide reform intervention designed to improve learning outcomes in Gauteng Province, South Africa. Using data from universal testing of all learners in 2008 on a provincial systemic evaluation, as well as data from the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Annual National Assessment tests, this article investigates whether or not the GPLMS improves the numeracy skills of learners in early-grade mathematics in underperforming schools. Using as identification strategy, the natural experiment that resulted from a miscalculation of the provincial systemic evaluation test scores in 2008, which had been used to assign schools to the GPLMS intervention, the study shows that the GPLMS intervention is positively associated with improvements in early-grade mathematics performance of schools in the neighbourhood around the assignment threshold. The findings of the study contribute to the growing body of knowledge that shows the effectiveness of combining lesson plans, learner resources, and quality teacher capacity building.
  • Treating schools to a new administration: Evidence from South Africa of the impact of better practices in the system-level administration of schools M Gustafsson, S Taylor – 2016 ABSTRACT: School examination results are far from ideal measures of progress in schooling systems, yet if analysed with sufficient care these data, which are common in education systems, can serve this purpose. The paper partly deals with how various student selection and year-on-year comparability issues in examinations data can be dealt with. This is demonstrated using South African student-level results, aggregated to the school level, for Grade 12 mathematics in the years 2005 to 2013. This was a period during which provincial boundaries changed, creating a quasi-experiment which is amenable to impact evaluation techniques. Value-added school production functions and fixed effects models are used to establish that movement into a better performing province was associated with large student performance improvements, equal in magnitude to around a year’s worth of progress in a fast improving country. Improvements were not always immediate, however, and the data seem to confirm that substantial gains are only achieved after several years, after students have been exposed to many grades of better teaching. The institutional factors which might explain the improvements are discussed. Spending per student was clearly not a significant explanatory variable. What did seem to matter was more efficient use of non-personnel funds by the authorities, with a special focus on educational materials, the brokering of pacts between stakeholders, including teacher unions, schools and communities, and better monitoring and support by the district office. Moreover, the education department in one province in question, Gauteng, has for many years pursued an approach which is unusual in the South African context, of hiring a substantial number of senior managers within the bureaucracy on fixed term contracts, as opposed to on a permanent basis, the aim being to improve accountability and flexibility at the senior management level.
  • Also, this isn’t new (it’s 2012) but I’ll be buying/ordering this volume ASAP: “Handbook of International Large-Scale Assessment: Background, Technical Issues, and Methods of Data Analysis

From petrol-attendant to President of the Supreme Court of Appeals SA: Judge Lex Mpati


This is the story of Judge Lex Mpati who went from being a petrol attendant after matric to the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal and Chancellor of Rhodes University where he studied (bartending on the side to pay for his studies). Such an inspiration that we have people like this who have gone from the very bottom to the very top.

“When you drive around Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape with Judge Lex Mpati you take in the tour of his life, starting at the old garage in Beaufort Street.Here, as a young man he worked as a petrol attendant and felt proud to be earning his own money. It was his first job after completing matric at Mary Waters High School in Grahamstown. His family had sent him here from Fort Beaufort where he grew up on a farm and attended the Catholic school in town, which stopped at Grade 8.Our tour continues, and we drive on to the motel where he once worked as a bartender. He recalls how kind the owner and manager were to him when he told them he wanted to study law. They encouraged him and allowed him to fit his bartending hours around his classes and studies.

Next is the furniture shop where he once worked as a salesman. This is the only job he has ever hated because he could not bear to see people being hoodwinked into hire purchase contracts they could not afford.Judge Mpati’s first home in Grahamstown was the two-roomed home in Victoria Road in the township of Fingo Village that he shared with his mother’s brother while schooling and later with his wife Mireille.From here we head across town to Rhodes University where he achieved his dream of studying law; a dream that started when he was arrested for illegally operating as a taxi at the railway station in 1968.

“I had just completed the night shift at the garage when I decided to make some extra money as I had the use of my grandfather’s car at the time,” he explains. “It was December and a lot of people were arriving by train, so I headed for the station and offered my taxi service. I was about to drive away with my clients when the police stopped me and charged me with pirating as a taxi.”He was given the option to pay a fine or go to court and he chose the latter. “I decided to defend myself and came up with a story about how I had gone to the station to pick up family members who didn’t arrive,” he recalls. “I explained that as I was leaving some people at the station had asked for a lift. When I told them I didn’t have enough petrol to take them home, they gave me 30c for petrol, which is how I came to be in possession of the money, which was quite a bit at the time. It cost 34c per gallon for regular and 38c for super. I felt I had done fairly well when I was found Not Guilty!” he smiles.It was not his first time in the magistrate’s court. Out of interest he had sat in on several cases when he had time off from the garage.

“I attended all sorts of cases – from early political trials of student activists from Healdtown and Lovedale to criminal cases. I would sit in the back listening to the charges being put to people and agonise over how they tried to defend themselves. Mostly they were black people and not being educated they were not able to conduct a good defence.”
He would get upset when people were sent to jail simply because they couldn’t ask the state witnesses the appropriate questions. “It was clear to me that the justice system was simply not working well and too many people were going to jail. That is what pushed me to decide to do law, I felt they needed someone who could defend them.”

Judge Mpati started his law degree at Rhodes in 1979 at the age of 30, paying for his first year with his earnings as a bartender. In his second and third year he received a scholarship, which covered his studies with some change to buy books. By this time he had met, courted and married Mireille who trained as a teacher and later as a nurse.In his third year he started working as a clerk for a legal firm in Grahamstown and stayed on after he graduated.“I mainly did criminal cases, which is precisely what I wanted to do. I was fulfilling my goal of helping people and I felt very good about it,” says Judge Mpati who was admitted as an attorney in 1985. “What made me especially proud was when people from my community would come up to me and tell me I had inspired them; that they had watched me go through university and qualify and it gave them the confidence to further their studies.”In February 1989 he joined the bar. Now an advocate he worked on his own from his chambers in Grahamstown until 1993 when he took up the post of in-house counsel at the Legal Resources Centre and immersed himself in human rights work in the Eastern Cape.“It has always been important to me to contribute to the growth of a society in which we can respect each other, not as a white person or black person, but as human beings who want to contribute to peace and upliftment in our country.”

In 1997 after he had served as an acting judge for a period of eight months, he became a judge. Two years later he was invited to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein where he was permanently appointed in 2000. Eight years later he was appointed President.While he is based in Bloemfontein, Grahamstown is still his home and he and Mireille return whenever they can. They now live in Knowling Street, which is part of the tour, and this is where they raised their four children. Lyle (40) their eldest is a Mechanical Engineer, Dawn (38) is an attorney, Ludi (26) is in IT and Demi-Lee (21) is studying law through Unisa.Judge Mpati is now in his fifth year as the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal, which he describes it as “an extremely challenging job”.“The judges at the Supreme Court of Appeal need to be the best in the country, and we need to maintain that standard but at the same time we need to see the judiciary transform, particularly when it comes to race and gender,” he explains. “As part of the process of transforming the judiciary you appoint a combination of the best judges and judges with the best potential to reach the level at which you wish to maintain the court.”

In February this year Judge Mpati was appointed Chancellor of Rhodes University.“It feels as if my life has come full circle,” he says. “When I arrived in Grahamstown as a young boy I could never have imagined that one day I would be the Chancellor of the University I attended and of which I am so proud.”Commenting on his appointment, the Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University Dr Saleem Badat said: “Judge Mpati personifies the values we embrace at Rhodes of rising above self, of modesty, commitment, excellence and ethical behaviour. His is an inspiring story and we are honoured to have him as our Chancellor.”

From here (via Janet Love).

Vancouver Public Library. The Force is strong with this one.


I recently had the privilege of visiting the incredible Vancouver Public Library for a few hours on Sunday morning and was totally blown away (thanks Kelsey for recommending it!). I was at the CIES education conference in town during the week and in hindsight I wish I had just spent it talking to the librarians instead, documenting what, how and why they do what they do. As it turns out, while I was wandering the floors of the library I was actually in the process of missing my flight home! In the end I had to book a series of one-way flights home which turned into a long (52-hours!) and expensive journey back to Cape Town. Nevertheless, I probably wouldn’t have had time to visit VPL had I not missed my flight. C’est la vie.

If I’m honest I found parts of my VPL experience a little emotionally overwhelming. I don’t think this was because of the library itself but rather because of the Canadian values and philosophy that it embodied. Walking around Vancouver and seeing various public announcements all in multiple languages was mirrored at VPL where half of an entire floor was dedicated to books published in other languages.



There were also some children’s books in other languages but not nearly as many (or as diverse) as in the adult books section.


The part that I found quite emotional was the “VPL Skilled Immigration Information Centre” which helps newly resident skilled immigrants find work. They have created 8-10 page booklets on each career with information on things like starting salaries, industry websites, and who the large employers are in that field. In the handbook on ECD practitioners there was even a section on “hidden jobs” and how to access these (jobs that aren’t advertised anywhere!).


Like many people I have been following the US presidential nominations and the contrast between the Canadian and American responses to the Syrian refugee crisis are just worlds apart. America has agreed to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees while Canada is taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees (Note: American population: 319 million,  Canadian population: 35 million). But for me it actually wasn’t about the numbers it was about the tone and the attitude towards refugees (and diversity in general). This was one of the posters in the library:


The day before I was taking the bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park and saw a photo of a Syrian girl on the side of the bus with an explanation that the government of Canada would match dollar-for-dollar any donation Canadians made to charities supporting the Syrian refugees (Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children etc.), and that this was up to $100 million. Once at Capilano I was also encouraged by the way that the official guides spoke of the traditions and knowledge of the First Nations people. As we walked around the park the guides told us why the First Nation’s people named certain trees the way they did and about their cultural traditions and practices. At no point did I feel that they were being exoticised or belittled. Their insights and names were woven into the park’s signs and boards and included in the children’s treasure/science hunt maps.

Back to the library, thisScreen Shot 2016-03-19 at 3.28.49 PM disposition towards diversity was strongly emphasised. The library not only has an Author-in-Residence, but also an Aboriginal-Storyteller-in-Residence aiming to foreground and highlight the oral tradition of the aboriginal people.

Throughout the library there were references to Syria and the refugee crisis with materials, both for Canadians and Syrians. In the children’s section there was even a list of picture books about refugees from other countries to help children understand what was going on.

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I was so impressed by the work that the children’s librarians had done. There were curated reading lists for different age groups and different topics with brief explanations of each book next to a picture of the front page. The front covers of each booklet are included below:


Forging the path of what a library looks like in the 21st century

Another thing I was struck by was how modern and professional everything looked. Apart from things like couches, computers, wifi and art, I got the distinct sense that the library was trying to claim for itself a space in the digital age. At the VPL Inspiration Lab there were multiple recording rooms  with specialist microphones and video-cameras, green-screens, conversion devices (digitising VHS, for example). And all of this was free. There were also pamphlets and courses on things like how to save a document, how to browse the internet, and how to use social media (presumably for the elderly).


In fact while I was walking around the Inspiration Lab I saw someone giving a talk to about 12 people on ISBN numbers and how to publish your own book, and someone recording their narration of a book…


And this is something that is explicitly encouraged and facilitated by the library:

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Since coming home and reading their Annual Report I quickly realised that the VPL is not the norm, either in Canada or in the OECD countries, and certainly not in South Africa. The Vancouver Public Library was ranked the best library in the world in one study. Now obviously these rankings (like all rankings) are a little dodgy, but the point is that this is one of the top libraries in the world.

My thoughts about VPL have been sloshing around in my brain for a week now and I’ve started realising a number of things about myself and public versus private goods. Growing up I think we did visit the public library a few times but it wasn’t anything spectacular or interesting. I never developed a love of public libraries or fully appreciated the role they could play in providing a social commons where books, information and knowledge were the principal means of engagement and interaction. Rather they were low-budget cranky places with old books and old people. Instead I developed a love of book-shops and book ownership. I think this was because walking around a good book shop felt welcoming and interesting; it has new books, has displays, has events (book launches, readings, discussions), it doesn’t feel grimy. But this is only because I can afford to buy the books that I like. And so here I start to see in my own life one small example of the way that the South African cogs work to perpetuate an unequal system. I don’t use a public library because they are of low quality, I buy books instead. So I never see the value of funding and using a great public library (at least until now). So here we are with thousands of wealthy people with small private libraries essentially each creating their own space that could otherwise be collectively provided by a great public library (and with public funds), which could then also be used by everyone.

I’m sure you can see that it’s not difficult to find the parallels between this and the private provision of healthcare, schooling, legal services, recreational facilities etc as compared to the public provision of these services. So it feels like we’re in a low-level equilibrium where the rich in SA can afford to fund for themselves whatever they need without any recourse to their tax money, and the poor are forced to accept whatever the government provides. This explains why many tax-payers (at least the South African tax-payers I know) see their tax as a kind of fee where you pay it with little expectation of return or service.

It costs a lot of money to fund and operate the 22 libraries that make up the Vancouver Public Library system, R527 million to be exact. Yet 94% of Vancouver residents support the use of tax dollars to fund the VPL.

If I had to say, I do not think that we can simply say “the first step is that the libraries that we do have need to better serve the communities within which they are situated.” while of course that is true, the apartheid legacy means that there are very few well-resourced libraries in the poorest areas (notably townships). I think it is an open question, and one that’s worth discussing, whether a functioning public library system that has the expertise and resources to support local residents (and especially local schools) is worth the considerable resources it would take to create such a system. The case needs to be made that (and in my view, is yet to be made) that it is possible to create such a library given our capacity and resource constraints. And secondly that it is a better use of resources than additional money on housing, child-support grants, teacher development etc.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts Equal Education, Nal’ibali, Bookery, Fundza, Bookdash and everyone in this space. Should we be funnelling millions of rands into creating functional public libraries in low-income high-density locations like Khayalitsha? Why aren’t we? Do we know how to do it? Who should lead the way?

Afrikaans universities perpetuate racial divisions (our M&G article)

black and white

[Image: Norman Akcroyd]

[This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 4th of March 2016]

Afrikaans universities perpetuate racial divisions – Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd

In the last 2 weeks we have seen a number of protests erupt at former Afrikaans-only universities, specifically at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State. The reasons for the protests were numerous and included workers’ wages, accommodation, fees and the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. At Stellenbosch University, a court case between AfriForum and the University was settled out of court last month and seemed to involve a reversal from the position of making English the primary medium of instruction at the University and instead giving English and Afrikaans equal status. For too long the issue of language in education has been dominated by ideological viewpoints that have little appreciation for, or understanding of, the empirical reality in South Africa. Of course language is inherently political – dealing as it does with issues of power, culture and identity – but those promoting or opposing a particular view need to show how those views square up with the linguistic, historical and socioeconomic context that we find ourselves in. Our aim here is to put some empirical evidence on the table so that we can move away from the anecdotes and ideologies that are currently driving policy and public-perception.

For over 50 years the apartheid government nurtured and resourced White-only schools and universities – both English and Afrikaans – while systematically under-resourcing institutions serving Black students. At the height of apartheid, the government allocated the same amount of resources to one White student at school as it did to 10 Black students at school. Even at the end of apartheid the average White child was receiving three and a half times as many resources from the government as the average Black child in one of the homelands. This legacy lives on in the post-apartheid period with ‘ex-Model-C’ schools continuing to be well-resourced as a result of the inertia of institutional functionality and the on-going investment by parents (of all races) that can afford fees, bequests and donations. The same can be said for former-White-only universities.

At universities the three major barriers preventing Black students accessing high-quality institutions are fees, language and weak academic results (from attending dysfunctional schools). The evidence of financial exclusion and financial inaccessibility is now well known. A research note published by our colleagues earlier this year showed that the cost of a BA degree at Stellenbosch had increased 30% between 2006 and 2015 and now requires 44% of average adult income. However there is far less evidence on the table about how many students are excluded from Stellenbosch because of language.

Of those students who qualified with a bachelor’s pass in matric 2014, every single student in the country took either English Home Language or English Second Language. In contrast, 61% of matrics who qualified with a bachelor’s pass did not take any Afrikaans subjects, either as a Home Language or a Second Language. If one looks at Black African students only, then 86% took no Afrikaans at all. It is reasonable to assume that 86% of Black African students who qualify to go to university understand no Afrikaans at all. How then are these students meant to understand some of their university subjects in Afrikaans if they are accepted at our university?

Frequently these students are told “If you don’t speak Afrikaans then go to one of the English universities”, as if there were an abundance of high-functioning English universities. There are only a limited number of ‘first-choice’ universities, and Stellenbosch is one of them. Under apartheid Stellenbosch, like it’s English White-only counterparts, was heavily resourced for 50 years and cannot now be ‘claimed’ by only one group. Stellenbosch has some of the best facilities and the best faculty in the country and should be available to all students, not only those that understand Afrikaans.

It is an uncomfortable truth that not all of South Africa’s 26 universities were born equal or are equal today – much like the born-frees. In the recent QS University ranking Stellenbosch was ranked the second best university in South Africa (after the University of Cape Town). In contrast, during the last 5 years three South African universities were placed under administration due to gross maladministration and bankruptcy. Of course the QS Rankings (like any rankings) are always dodgy, but Stellenbosch remains in the top 5 universities in the country irrespective of the measure you choose; NRF rated professors, research output, PhD production, students’ ‘first-choice’ etc.

At Stellenbosch there still exist dual-medium English and Afrikaans classes where lecturers switch between the two languages as they teach, essentially excluding (or confusing) those students who do not understand Afrikaans. In some courses there are also interpretation services. (Importantly this is usually from Afrikaans to English, not the other way around). A common thread of student protests at Stellenbosch has been that the interpretation services – referred to as ‘ghost whisperers’ – are inadequate, frustrating and create second-class students in the lecture hall. Having a mediated, second-hand learning experience is extremely frustrating and alienating. The issue of ‘separate’ English/Afrikaans classes and separate residence allocation based on language (which is against policy) is also highly problematic. It often leads to White-only Afrikaans classes or accommodation, which exists alongside mixed English classes and accommodation. How does this lead to integration and mutual understanding?

In a multilingual country like South Africa the ideal would be the development and use of all languages to the exclusion of none. The thing is, we have 11. This is simply not feasible in the short or even medium term. It is our view that in the balancing act between the right to access a historically well-resourced and currently highly-functional university; and the (qualified) right to learn in a home language, the former outweighs the latter. 100% of students that qualify for university do understand English while only 40% understand Afrikaans. Among Black African students, only 14% of those who qualify for university took any Afrikaans at school. We cannot see how excluding 86% of Black students from accessing Stellenbosch University is fair given our apartheid history, or how the University will become more representative of the country without transforming its language policy. In our view, ensuring that all courses are offered in at least English (without translation) is the least bad alternative of those available. It is not the responsibility of public universities to protect and defend any one language or culture. This is especially so when the patterns of historical and current privilege and exclusion are essentially one and the same.

Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd are researchers in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University.