Monthly Archives: May 2016

I’ve moved to the OECD in Paris :)


I have now moved to Paris to work at the OECD for my TJA Fellowship on PISA data in developing countries. This is essentially an extension of my work on SACMEQ/PASEC and DHS, trying to combine surveys of achievement and attainment to get a composite measure of education system performance.  While I’m away I won’t be commenting as regularly on SA education issues as I usually do. And I will probably shift my focus to other developing countries which is the topic of my research at the OECD. I have already found a number of fascinating things about some PISA countries which I don’t think are widely known or fully appprecaited. There is more than enough included in my previous blog post (11 policy briefs, two synthesis reports and a 200+-page special issue of the SAJCE), not to mention the Volmink Report, for the media and policy-makers to focus on for the next 2 years, let alone 3 months. Keeping up with the nitty-gritty doesn’t make much sense when the underlying issues are not being addressed or taken seriously.

To be honest I’m quite glad to be taking a break from South African education and working on PISA and learning about PISA-for-Development. Clear outcomes, a competent team, and political will. That’ll be nice 🙂

Binding Constraints in Education


For the last two years we at RESEP have been working on two major education projects: The “Binding Constraints” project (Presidency/EU) and the “Getting Reading Right” project (Zenex Foundation). We launched the two reports on Tuesday last week (my presentation is here). Included below are the two project synthesis reports, a detailed outline on a prospective course (which needs a funder) on “Teaching Reading (& Writing) in the Foundation Phase” and 11 policy briefs. I’ve also included the “Roadmap for Reading” which provides a detailed outline of the practical steps that the Minister of Education could take if she wanted to prioritise reading in the Foundation Phase.


  1. Identifying Binding Constraints in Education (V2) [Errata from V1 here]
  2. Laying Firm Foundations: Getting Reading Right
  3. Teaching Reading (and Writing) in the Foundation Phase: A Concept Note

Policy Briefs:

  1. Increasing the supply of teacher graduates
  2. Education datasets in South Africa
  3. Rethinking pre-grade R
  4. Is school based assessment in matric achieving its potential?
  5. Improving the calibre of school leadership in South Africa
  6. The DBE’s workbooks as a curriculum tool
  7. Adding randomised control trials (RCTs) to the education research toolkit
  8. What the ANAs tell us about socioeconomic learning gaps in South Africa
  9. Learning to read and reading to learn
  10. Excessive class sizes in the Foundation Phase
  11. Building an evidence base for inclusive education in South Africa: Focusing on learners with disabilities
  12. Limited support for the Foundation Phase: A Misallocation of district resources

reading right

All of the above are also available on the RESEP website here. The 2015 special issue of the South African Journal of Childhood Education (SAJCE) where most of the research was published is available here (ungated) for those who would like to read the full journal articles.

The presentations from the event are available here:

(I would especially encourage everyone to read through Servaas’ and Gabi’s presentations, they were exceptional!)

There is obviously a lot to be said about these two projects, some of the new research points to very tangible, actionable steps to improve the education system, decrease inequality in outcomes and arguably create a fairer and more efficient education system. Yet it is not at all clear that any of these suggestions will be followed. It was unfortunate that neither the Director General nor the Minister were able to make the report launch. I am aware that both have very busy schedules and that a lot has been happening in education in the last few months. I hope that Servaas will have an opportunity to present this research to them in the coming months. I have also been underwhelmed by the online coverage of the research.

I deliberately do not want to write about the research now since I am currently a little jaded and frustrated about the education research, funding and policy space (perhaps you can tell!). When there are clear, unambiguous and actionable steps that could be taken to improve the education system and they are not taken, this is frustrating. When funders choose to channel millions (billions?) of rands in fruitless directions toward unevaluated projects, it is frustrating. When clear priorities and needs are ignored by national government and local funders (like developing a high-quality course to teach foundation phase teachers to teach reading!), it is frustrating. And perhaps most frustrating of all is the large number of people in provincial and national government that are unable to do the jobs that they have been appointed to do. While there are a number of dedicated and competent public servants and politicians in education, the way that our system is set up means that they have to rely on people who cannot do what they are being asked to do. Those people need to be trained quickly or performance-managed out of the system. That will take courage, strategic leadership and a clear understanding that the status quo is preventing poor children from quality education. Indeed “Weak institutional functionality” or “Insufficient State Capacity” was one of our four binding constraints. Go figure.

Jobs-For-Cash report *FINALLY* released


The Ministerial Task Team Report into the sale of posts – colloquially referred to as the Jobs-for-Cash report has finally be released by the DBE. Full report HERE. The report is far-reaching, frank and damning. We all owe a huge thanks to Professor Volmink and his team for their investigation and this much needed report. When corruption is so systemic, as it is in SA education, to write a report like this without fear or favour is the mark of a deep conviction that something has to change.

I have taken out a few excerpts for those who don’t have time to read the whole (285-page report:

  • “All the Deputy Directors-General in the Department of Basic Education are SADTU members and attend meetings of that Union. (p93)
  • “The Gauteng MEC said that “the major Union is in charge of education” in his Province” (p.81)
  • HOD North West – “He said that his Department has so many cases of wrongdoing that if he asked the SAPS to follow them up, it would amount to closing down the Department. ” (p87)
  • “Of the 81 cases that were investigated, 38 cases provided grounds for either reasonable suspicion requiring further investigation or point directly to wrongdoing amounting to criminal conduct. (Reasonable suspicion exists when there are objective grounds or empirical facts that form the basis for the suspicion as opposed to mere conjecture.) “ (p18)
  • North West – “When the claims were made in the City Press in April 2014, the NWDOE appointed a forensic company to investigate the claim that SADTU had influenced the appointment of senior officials in the provincial department. The report, dated 15 August 2011, was made available to the MTT. Further investigation by the MTT indicates that in 9 cases investigated by the forensic investigative company, there was no evidence to support the allegations in 2 cases. However in 6 cases SADTU officials or representatives exerted improper influence; however is no evidence of money being involved. In one case, a senior district official acted improperly in support of the promotion of a friend. In none of the cases was action taken in respect of the findings.“ (p20)
  • Gauteng – “Following claims made in City Press in May 2014, The GDE acted promptly and appointed a firm of attorneys to investigate the claims of improper influence at school level. The detailed report included information from both written and verbal statements and concluded, inter alia, that posts are being sold for cash, that the parties operate in networks, and that there is a climate of fear that keeps people from exposing these practices. The GDE then moved to take disciplinary action, but the majority of witnesses did not wish to give signed statements.This outcome is unacceptable as in this case there is evidence that a network exists that is selling posts for cash. Steps need to be taken to support the individuals who were willing to take the risk of speaking. This requires further investigation by a competent authority. It is not acceptable that a teacher who is courageous enough to report alleged corrupt acts was told must be told to go to her local police station. This cannot be acceptable. In several cases where teachers and other informants have acted with enormous courage to report gross abuse no action has been taken.” (p20)
  • “RECOMMENDATION 4: That the Department of Basic Education regain control of administering the education system in all Provinces so that clear distinctions are established between the roles and functions of the DBE and the concerns of Teacher Unions.” (p21)
  • “The deployment of officials to the Department from Unions weakens the Department because those so deployed often struggle to demonstrate that they are able to balance the complexity of competing loyalties and demands.” (p25)
  • “RECOMMENDATION 10: That both school- and office-based educators cease to be office- bearers of political parties and that educators in management posts (including school principals) be prohibited from occupying leadership positions in Teacher unions.” (p25)
  • “If ‘undue influence’ (a polite name for corruption) is a result of cadre deployment, then cadre deployment is likely to lead to corruption. It is the impression of the Task Team that such corruption is endemic to greater and lesser degrees in the entire education system and that as a first move to cleanse the system, cadre deployment should not be permitted.” (p25)
  • “RECOMMENDATION 15: That the South African Council of Educators (SACE) be reconceptualised and freed from Union and political domination.” (p28)
  • All the Deputy Directors-General in the Department of Basic Education are SADTU members and attend meetings of that Union. That being the case, it is not improbable to say that schooling throughout South Africa is run by SADTU. The significance of cadre deployment in South Africa’s education system is discussed below in Chapter Four.” (p93)
  • “Early in May, the North West’s Deputy HOD was held hostage overnight by SADTU officials over the unresolved matter of temporary teachers.” (p.82)

Some media reports are starting to emerge in Times Live and Citizen but it will be interesting once the journalists and commentators get their teeth into the detailed report.

My M&G article responding to the Statistician General

Spaull M&G 13 May

This was first published in the Mail & Guardian on the 13th of May 2016. The PDF of the article is also available as text below:

Black graduates have doubled in last 10 years – Dr Nic Spaull

As someone who has written quite extensively about the failings of our education system, I was unusually surprised by the quotes emerging in the media coverage of a recent Stats SA report and even more so by the Statistician General Pali Lehohla’s comments last week. Following publication of the report, titled “The Social Profile of Youth”, the Business Day was quick to inform us that apparently black youth were less educated now than 20 years ago.” The Daily Maverick ran a similar headline: “Stats SA claims black youth are less skilled than their parents”, with equally alarmist coverage in Times Live, ENCA, SABC etc. Unfortunately StatsSA did not denounce the media’s claims. The story seems to have grown legs, with former president Thabo Mbeki calling it a “national emergency” and the Shadow Minister of Basic Education speaking of “the collapse of education in poor communities.”

Of course none of this is true. As we shall see, Black youth have higher levels of educational attainment today than at any other point in South Africa’s history. There are more Black matrics, more black high level passes in mathematics and science, and many more Black university graduates. (Note that this is both as a proportion of the Black population and in absolute terms). In this article I will focus on black university graduates since everyone agrees that there have been large increases in black youth passing matric and achieving bachelor’s passes.

If we cut to the chase the confusion all centres on one strange graph (Figure 4.2) appearing on page 64 of the 2015 Stats SA report “Census 2011: A profile of education enrolment, attainment and progression in South Africa” and the misinterpretation of what that graph apparently shows. That graph shows that the proportion of black and coloured youth that graduate with a bachelor’s degree “after completing matric” has been declining for 20 years, while for whites and Indians it has been increasing. This is very strange and does not seem to agree with other, perhaps more reliable data sources. Unlike when trying to measure things like the unemployment rate or wages (where you have to turn to household survey data or the Census), when counting the number of university degrees awarded it’s a little easier. We can look at surveys, but we can also just look at the Higher Education Management Information System (Hemis) the record-keeping system stating who has been granted what degree and when. All degrees that are granted must be recorded on this database. So what does Hemis tell us about the number of black youth actually getting degrees over the last 20 years?

Fortuitously, this exact question was addressed in a Stellenbosch Economic Working Paper (08/16) published last week by my colleague Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen. In that paper he shows that “while the number of White graduates produced annually has increased only moderately from about 27 500 to just over 35 000 in the past 25 years, the number of Black graduates produced has increased more than 16-fold from about 3 400 in 1986 to more than 63 000 in 2012.” For this article I was particularly interested in degrees rather than diplomas or certificates) and he kindly provided the figures for degrees only by race (see figure below). The changes have been equally dramatic. Between 1994 and 2014 the number of black graduates with degrees being produced each year has more than quadrupled, from about 11,339 (in 1994) to 20,513 (in 2004) to 48,686 graduates (in 2014). Even if one only focuses on the recent period between 2004 and 2014 Black graduates increased by about 137% (compared to 9% for whites), while the black population grew by about 16% over the same period.

This might lead us to yet another famous South African myth; that graduate unemployment is high (it isn’t) or increasing (it’s not). Again, rigorous research by Dr Van Broekhuizen and Professor Servaas van der Berg convincingly debunks this hoax. They conclude their research report as follows: “The frequently reported ‘crisis in graduate unemployment’ in South Africa is a fallacy based on questionable research. Not only is graduate unemployment low at less than 6%, but it also compares well with rates in developed countries. The large expansion of black graduate numbers has not significantly exacerbated unemployment amongst graduates….Black graduates are, however, still more likely to be unemployed than white graduates.” (Note: in 2015 black graduate unemployment was about 9% compared to 3% for whites.) [Their extended article is here]

 Another colleague of mine, Dr Stephen Taylor in his response to the Statistician General (Business Day, 29 April) has shown why Stats SA’s Figure 4.2 is so misleading (essentially the increase in black matrics was larger than the increase in black graduates, but both increased substantially). Unfortunately the SG has simply lashed out at Dr Taylor referring to his critique as “technically incomprehensible and policy irrelevant” (Business Day, 5 May). To avoid a similar riposte let me be clear: Black graduates have more than doubled in the last ten years. The black population hasn’t. Therefore, black youth are more likely to get degrees than 10 years ago. I think this is both technically comprehensible and policy relevant.

The argument that “black youth are regressing educationally” feeds a dangerous narrative that is not supported by any education data in South Africa. Not improving fast enough, yes. Regressing, no. Black youth have higher educational attainment now than at any point in South Africa’s history. This does not change my firmly held view that our education system is in crisis and that we need meaningful reform, that goes without saying. The egregious levels of educational inequality between working class and middle-class families, and between whites and blacks should cause alarm. And yes, our youth unemployment problem is monumental and unsustainable; there is widespread and legitimate research to show that. But spreading fallacious rumours and causing doubt where there is none, helps no one. Together with a number of colleagues and officials I would ask the Statistician General to please clarify his comments on black graduates and set the record straight.


Dr Nic Spaull is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg, the University of Stellenbosch and the OECD.  

Workings for graphs (thanks Hendrik van Broekhuizen!)

Year Black Coloured Asian White
Y1986 2957 1131 1532 17601
Y1987 3153 1280 1692 19064
Y1988 3546 1349 1771 20494
Y1989 4043 1760 1930 21613
Y1990 4862 1958 1975 22747
Y1991 7115 2230 2170 23800
Y1992 8130 2270 2363 24901
Y1993 8661 2392 2621 24571
Y1994 11339 2127 3023 25538
Y1995 13123 1833 2506 16885
Y1996 15781 1785 2479 16363
Y1997 17367 1869 2713 16385
Y1998 17181 1949 2796 15650
Y1999 19093 1785 2175 15410
Y2000 20379 1909 3193 15896
Y2001 17017 1913 3430 16017
Y2002 16222 2075 3712 17094
Y2003 17234 2322 3776 17948
Y2004 20513 2640 4307 18757
Y2005 21052 2916 4505 19860
Y2006 22508 3097 4805 20732
Y2007 23356 3480 4840 20522
Y2008 25373 3677 4984 20482
Y2009 27869 3866 4774 20555
Y2010 31453 4366 4690 20456
Y2011 34209 4456 5109 20248
Y2012 40001 4778 5089 20303
Y2013 45948 5291 5748 21548
Y2014 48686 5622 5529 20510

*These include the following: General Academic Bachelor’s Degree; Professional First Bachelor’s Degree; Baccalaureus Technologiae Degree; Professional First Bachelor’s Degree; First National Diploma (3 years); First National Diploma (4 years)

Figures refer to the number of HE awards and will thus be at least as large as the number of graduates produced in each year. Includes only undergraduate degrees. (Thus excludes all UG   diplomas, and certificates

Response to the Statistician General – Dr Stephen Taylor


[Guest post – Stephen Taylor]

The Statistician General (SG) recently responded to my letter to the Business Day. A full version of what I have written is available here. I would simply reiterate what I wrote initially. In brief:

Numerous newspapers and media outlets were running with headlines such as “Black youth less educated now than 20 years ago” (Business Day) and “Stats SA claims black youth are less skilled than their parents” (Daily Maverick). The articles were referencing a recent Stats SA report as well as comments made by the SG.

My position is simple: These claims are factually incorrect and Stats SA reports and data do not actually say this. Note that I did not “adjudge a mistake” in the actual Stats SA report. I do not know exactly what the SG said at the release, which may have lead the media to run with the headlines they did, but I speculated about what I thought might have been causing the confusion.

The SG’s response has confirmed that I was right about what had caused the confusion. He had in mind a very specific “progression ratio” – the ratio of degree graduates to matriculants. This ratio may have been decreasing for black and coloured youth, but this is simply because the increase in degree graduates has not kept pace with the increase in matriculants. Importantly, both the likelihood of achieving a matric and the likelihood of achieving a degree have been fast increasing, especially for black youth. This means it cannot possibly be true that black and coloured youth are worse off educationally than their parents, which is the message the media were propagating. None of the media reports said anything about this “progression ratio” which the SG has now referred to. Instead the media were reporting that lower proportions of the entire black and coloured population were attaining a degree. And that isn’t true.

According to Higher Education data, the number of black degree graduates per year has increased more than four-fold from 11 339 in 1994 all the way to 48 686 in 2014.[Note: New SU Working Paper published by Hendrik van Broekhuizen last week on this topic]. This is much faster than population growth. For white youth, this number has essentially remained flat at roughly 20 000 graduates per year. Of course there is still a lot of inequality – these numbers mean whites are still about 6 times more likely to attain a degree than black youth.

This “progression ratio” may have some analytic value, as the SG points out. For example, it may reflect a greater policy prioritisation of secondary education relative to higher education. But this indicator must be clearly explained and it also has its limitations. I cannot imagine anyone celebrating improved educational outcomes if the numbers of black and coloured youth attaining a degree had gone down, while the numbers attaining a matric had gone down even faster, leading to an increase in the degree-to-matric progression ratio!

I know progress hasn’t been as fast as we need. But it is far from the truth to suggest educational outcomes have regressed.


Black graduates: 3 400 in 1986… 55 600 in 2011. Enough said :)

On the topic of the change in the number of black African graduates over the last twenty years (and the recent media hype) this study by my colleague and friend Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen  is all that needs to be said:

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 4.23.24 PM

“In addition to the expansion of South Africa’s yearly graduate outputs, the nature of the policy changes which have affected the HE system over the past 25 years means that the demographic composition of South Africa’s stock of graduates has also changed radically over time. This is clearly evident when looking at changes in the racial composition of the graduates produced by the HE system each year. Figure 3.2 reveals that, while the number of White graduates produced annually has increased only moderately from about 27 500 to just over 35 000 in the past 25 years, the number of Black graduates produced has increased more than 16-fold from about 3 400 in 1986 to more than 55 600 in 2011. The implications of the racial differences in graduate output growth are simple: while the HE system produced 7.9 White graduates for each Black graduate in 1986, by 2011 it produced 1.6 Black graduates for every single White graduate. Figure 3.3 offers a similarly poignant illustration of the extent of change in the racial composition of South Africa’s stock of graduates by showing the respective racial shares of the total number of graduates produced in each year since 1986″ (p13).

From his 2013 Economic Society of South Africa paper.

We’re hiring a Project Administrator! (based in Stellenbosch)


Hi education folk

We’ve recently been awarded a grant by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and DFID to do research on exceptional township and rural primary schools in three provinces – Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. I will be leading the project together with a great team of co-investigators and researchers: Ursula Hoadley (UCT), Jaamia Galant (UCT), Nick Taylor (JET), Servaas van der Berg (ReSEP), Gabi Wills (ReSEP) and Linda Zuze (HSRC).

Given that we will be using a matched-pair approach, the aim of the project is to to firstly identify at least 10 high-performing township/rural schools in each of the three provinces and then match those schools to ‘typical’ neighbouring schools (thus 60 schools in total). The project will run for 2.5 years (beginning June 2016) and will involve in-depth qualitative research, administering and analysing assessments, creating new school-leadership and management instruments and analysing the data emerging from the project.

At the moment we are looking for a part time (50%) project administrator to help us with the administration relating to the project. The full job-advert can be found here. I include a short extract:

The ideal candidate should be an efficient and organised person with some experience in managing the administrative side of academic projects. They should be friendly and able to communicate well, as well as plan effectively and take initiative to solve problems as they arise. They should also be able to liaise with (1) the funders – DFID/ESRC, (2) Stellenbosch University finance and administration personnel, and (3) the 5 co- investigators as well as other researchers and field-workers. The job will include following up with government officials, managing flights and accommodation, planning reporting cycles, managing time-sheets, budgets and funding claims, proof-reading and printing questionnaires etc.

They should also be friendly 🙂 Basically we’re looking for a go-to admin guru to help us with this project. If your skills and experience are such that you would also be able to help on the non-admin research side (doing research-assistant work or interviews/assessment) then we may involve you in more than an administrative role. However this would be on top of your administrative responsibilities, and in such a case the remuneration is somewhat negotiable. It is a part-time position and it’s based at Stellenbosch University (in the Economics Department) so remuneration would be in line with university salary scales (I believe it is about post-level 11, although it would be 50% of the amount stated here) and partially dependent on qualifications and/or experience.

If you’re interested in working with this great team on an exciting new project please do apply 🙂 (and if you know of anyone who may be interested please forward this on to them!)