Category Archives: Education

Important research inputs on #FeesMustFall


I have been meaning to blog about some new research on access to higher education that was published earlier this week: “Higher Education Access and Outcomes for the 2008 Matric Cohort” (Van Broekhuizen, Van der Berg & Hofmeyr, 2016). I will only highlight some of the key points from the 122-page Working Paper which is really worth reading in its entirety. Essentially the researchers used the matric data from 2008 and followed these students (using their ID numbers) into the higher education system using data from the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS). Perhaps the most striking feature is that of the 100 students that started school, only 12 ever access university (9 immediately after matric and 3 later), 6 get some kind of qualification within 6 years and only 4 get a degree within 6 years.

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Secondly, that matrics that attend quintile 5 schools (almost all of which charge fees) are four times as likely to access university than those from the poorest 60% of schools (quintiles 1-3), all of which are no-fee schools. However, it’s encouraging to note that of those quintile 1-3 student that do qualify with a bachelor’s pass, more than 63-68% do actually access university, compared to 70% among quintile 5 students.


Much of the paper points to that fact that unequal access to university is rooted in a highly unequal schooling system where access to high-quality schooling largely depends on a family’s ability to pay school fees. If one looks at the cumulative matric average achievement by race one still finds enormous differentials. While 60% of White matric students achieved 60% or more in matric, only 5% of Black African matrics score at or above 60%. And this is only among the students that actually made it to matric which is only slightly more than half the cohort (see this paper).


The last piece of their research that I want to highlight is that the student intake at different universities is vastly different. If one looks at the matric marks of the typical student entering UCT, Stellenbosch, UP or Wits one can see below that they scored 70% or above on average. This is in stark contrast to those students entering TUT, Fort Hare, Uni-Zulu, Walter Sisulu, UWC etc., all of whom have incoming students whose average matric mark is less than 60%. At the Central University of Technology (CUT, in Free State) the average entrant scored 50% in matric.


At the beginning of last year Professor Servaas van der Berg gave a Brown-Bag Lunch Seminar at Stellenbosch University  on “The Distributional Implications of Student Fees.” I include some notable excerpts and graphs below:

“Education has a number of properties which make the analysis of the demand for it both interesting and complex. … (Education is) …a consumption good and a capital good, i.e., although much of the expenditure is justified in terms of the effects on the individual’s income in the future, many of the activities of educational institutions are primarily justifiable in terms of their immediate consumption benefits. Moreover, education affects individuals’ future incomes.” – (Stiglitz 1974: 349)


Perhaps most striking are Van der Berg’s estimates of who actually makes it to university and where they come from in the income distribution. According to these estimates, there are more students attending university from the richest 10% of the income distribution (Decile 10) than from the poorest 80% of the income distribution (Deciles 1-8 combined).



Last month Nico Cloete (from CHET) gave a lecture at SALDRU (UCT) titled: “University Fees in SA: A Story from Evidence.” I include some relevant slides from his presentation:




Anyone who wants to contribute to the debate about university fees needs to grapple with the realities presented by these three papers/presentations. At the end of the day we need to be able to answer the question of where the money will come from. A Graduate tax? Debt? The Education or Health budgets?

The most reasonable (and probably workable) solution that I have heard is that proposed by Prof Van der Berg who suggests that we should use the existing financial services infrastructure (banks) who could provide government-backed grant-loans (my terminology not SVDB’s) to students that qualify for university. It would be a grant that converts into a loan if a student successfully completes their degree and starts earning a decent income. It would still require a huge amount of government finance to provide the surety to banks for students who come from households that earn less than R500,000 (or some threshold). But, unlike with totally ‘free’ education, the students that do successfully complete their degrees would ‘pay-it-forward’ and contribute to the fund used to finance future students. boom

Also, as a side-issue, the Fees Commission needs to get a fast-tracked timetable and told to release at least a preliminary report and recommendations before the end of the year. We cannot wait until June next year. The political hot-potato would have been passed along one too many times from VCs to DHET to Treasury and eventually it will just explode. A stitch in time saves nine.

(If you have any additional research suggestions please send me an email and I’ll include them in this post)

Additional inputs from readers: 

Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea? The Financing of Higher Education” 3×3 article by Philippe Burger – Sept 2016 (Thanks Marisa!).

Abstract: “Higher-than-inflation increases in student fees since 2009 often are blamed on declining government subsidies to universities. This is not entirely correct, if one considers real per-student subsidies. Fee increases resulted mainly from cost pressures faced by universities due to growing student numbers and a weakening rand. These pressures will not disappear. Eliminating government wastage is not a durable solution and difficult choices cannot be avoided. So, who should pay for increasing costs, students or government – or which combination of these?”

Kagisano Number 10 – Student Funding” – CHE (April 2016)

Description: The tenth issue of the CHE’s journal, Kagisano, brings together a number of papers that were presented at a CHE colloquium on student funding that was held in December 2013. The colloquium took as its point of departure the Funding chapter of South African Higher Education Reviewed, and the various papers, presented by experts who responded to a call for papers, all address in different ways the student funding crisis that reached a head with the #feesmustfall campaign in late 2015, and that continues to underlie student unrest in higher education. Different ideas on how to restructure student funding are presented, and the solutions range from the philosophical to the practical. This issue aims to contribute to the ongoing conversations, negotiations and policy-making aimed at ameliorating the intractable challenge of how to fund increasing access to higher education while ensuring that students receive a quality higher education experience.

21st Century Skills: MakerSpace


If you’re interested in 21st Century Skills (like Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication), you should be looking into MakerSpace which now has a branch in Durban 🙂 The aim is a kind of ‘make it yourself’ drive, and helps by providing the skills, tools and training to do it. For education this might be about 3D-printing, or how to use and program an Arduino, or Robot Making (see pamphlet below). This reminded me of Stanford’s FabLearn Labs which works on a similar logic (the photo above is of a FabLearn Lab). If your school can afford these types of courses I would strongly recommend moving in this direction…

School programmes

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You can find out more here –

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.

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

Black youths are NOT educationally worse off than 20 years ago – Dr Stephen Taylor

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Figure 1: Proportions of the population achieving secondary education (left) and a bachelors degree (right). (Source: Stats SA (2015): CENSUS 2011: A profile of education enrolment, attainment and progression in South Africa, page 41.)

On the 18th of April the Business Day published a piece titled, “Black youth less educated now than 20 years ago.” This statement is simply wrong and unsupported by any data set. Yet the story is now gaining momentum and has been published by other news outlets, such as the Daily Maverick, reporting that “Stats SA claims black youth are less skilled than their parents.”

The article asserts that “black and coloured youths have regressed in their educational achievements” and that the proportion of black and coloured youth that complete a university degree as a share of the population has decreased. This is factually incorrect.

The article references a recent Stats SA report on the status of the youth as well as comments by the Statistician General, Pali Lohohla, as the basis for these assertions.

But in fact, the Stats SA published reports (as with all other analysis I have seen or done) indicate that the proportions of black and coloured youths who attain grade 9, grade 12, and a university degree, have all increased consistently in recent decades and are still increasing. It is thus not clear where this misconception arose.

I suspect the mistake may have arisen through a misunderstanding of a statistic which has been presented by the Statistician General recently and which appears in Stats SA’s report on educational enrolment, attainment and progression (December 2015). The statistic shows that the proportion of black and coloured youths who achieve a bachelors degree “after completing grade 12” has been declining over the last 20 to 30 years.

It needs to be understood that this statistic is the proportion of matriculants who go on to attain a degree. In other words, the denominator in this calculation is matriculants as opposed to the entire black and coloured population.

The improvement in matric attainment among black and coloured youth has been larger than the improvement in degree attainment among black and coloured youth, but – and this is the important part – there have been big improvements in both. The fact that the increase in degree completion has been slower than the increase in matric completion is not at all an indication that youth are worse off now than 20 years ago.

So the ‘bad’ news is that degree completion, although it has increased, has not kept pace with the fast increase in the attainment of matric amongst black and coloured youths. But this certainly does not mean that educational outcomes are worse than 20 years ago.

So what do the numbers actually say? The Stats SA report issued in December shows that the proportion of black people completing matric has been consistently increasing from about 20% to about 50% over the last 50 years. That report also indicates that the proportion of black people completing a degree has increased from about 2% to about 4% over the same period.

Whether you read official Stats SA reports or do your own calculations on the various Stats SA datasets – I have analysed Census data from 1996, 2001 and 2011 as well as General Household Survey data from 2002 to 2014 – it is clear that both matric attainment and degree attainment has been increasing amongst the black and coloured population.

It is also useful to consider the Department of Basic Education’s matric statistics from recent years. In 1990, there were 191 000 matric passes. By 2015 this number had more than doubled to 465 863. This increase has been driven mainly by growing numbers of black youth passing – and this growth has easily outstripped population growth, which has been about 1% a year. Even since 2008, the number of black matric passes has increased from about 250 000 to over 350 000. And the number of black people achieving a bachelors pass in matric has increased from about 60 000 to about 120 000 since 2008.

I am by no means suggesting that everything is fine in our education system. Despite the progress, there are still too many youths who do not get to grade 12, the main reason being that educational foundations laid in earlier grades have been inadequate. And completion rates at our higher education institutions should worry us. But there have been improvements in both of these areas relative to 20 years ago.

Although improved access at lower levels of education (primary and secondary school completion) has been faster than access at higher levels, paradoxically the solutions must focus on the early grades if sustainable progress is to be made.

The most alarming education statistics to me are the low proportions of children achieving basic literacy and numeracy in the early grades. International assessments of education quality point to serious deficiencies in this area, even compared to some other countries in the region. If children are not learning to read in the early grades, they will not be able to make it to higher education.

But even in the area of learning quality, the evidence points to improvement. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science study (TIMSS) showed substantial improvements in mathematics and science achievement at the grade 9 level between 2002 and 2011. However, this improvement is off a very low base.

Educational outcomes in South Africa remain far too low, especially amongst youths from poor communities. But claims that education was better under apartheid or that outcomes have deteriorated over the last 20 years are alarmist and have no basis in reality.

Dr Stephen Taylor is a researcher in the South African Department of Basic Education. His work includes impact evaluation of education interventions, measuring educational performance and equity in educational outcomes. In 2010 he completed a PhD in economics at the University of Stellenbosch, analysing educational outcomes of poor South African children.

(This article first appeared in the Business Day on Friday the 29th of April 2016)



The Biggest Solvable Problem in SA: Reading


Whenever I travel overseas I am asked the question “What is the biggest problem in South Africa?” And I typically respond, “The biggest problem or the biggest solvable problem?” In the 2000’s the biggest problem was HIV/AIDS. After hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths – the equivalent of a small genocide – the government ceded to the courts and offered life-saving ARVs to those infected with HIV and saved their lives. HIV was, and is, a solvable problem. Unfortunately the three biggest problems in South Africa today – too few jobs, too little growth, and too much inequality – are not easily solvable. And because we don’t exactly know how to ‘create’ jobs or growth, we don’t really know how to decease inequality much further.

Of course everyone has theories about how we can increase jobs, but the evidence is pretty thin. Depending on your political fancy and chosen economic guru there are various concoctions ranging from youth wage subsidies, eliminating red-tape, decreasing taxes, increasing taxes, digging holes, filling holes…you get the picture. Ask the top labour-economists in the country how to create jobs and you won’t get a straight answer (This is partly a provocation to said labour economists to tell us if there is in fact any coalesced consensus). You won’t even get consensus on the next three steps towards finding the answer; which is, incidentally, not a uniquely South African problem. So what to do? I think the best response is to keep cracking away at the problem; experimenting, evaluating, moving forward. But in the mean time we should also be allocating time, energy and resources to solvable problems; those we haven’t currently cracked but have a pretty good idea of how to do so. Epidemic HIV; distribute free ARVs. Crippling poverty; introduce the child support grant. Widespread malnutrition; provide free school meals to most children. The government should be heavily praised for all of these important initiatives.

But the problem I want to focus on here is the fact that most kids do not learn to read in lower-primary school. South Africa is unique among upper middle-income countries in that less than half of its primary school children learn to read for meaning in any language in lower primary school.

Irrespective of how tenuous or strong you believe the relationship is between education and economic growth, teaching all children to read well is a unanimously agreed upon goal in the 21st century. It is necessary for dignified living in a modern world, it is necessary for non-menial jobs, it is necessary for a functioning democracy. It also usually helps with ignorance, bigotry and a lack of empathy. In a modern context illiteracy is a disease that is eradicable, unlike unemployment or inequality. Like polio, illiteracy practically does not exist in most wealthy or even middle-income countries (defined here as basic reading). Illiteracy rates among those who have completed grade 4 are in the low single digits in wealthy countries like England (5%), the United States (2%) and Finland (1%) and less than 50% in most middle income countries such as Colombia (28%), Indonesia (34%), and Iran (24%). It’s difficult to get directly comparable estimates for the whole country but the best estimate from the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) surveys is about 58%. That is to say 58% of Grade 4/5 students cannot read for meaning in any language. And why is Grade 4 a critical period? The South African curriculum (like most curricula) prescribes that in the first three years of schooling children must ‘learn to read’, then from grade 4 onwards they must ‘read to learn’. The fact that almost 60% cannot learn through reading means that these children cannot really engage with the curriculum beyond grade 4. It really isn’t much more complicated than that

Reading for meaning and pleasure is, in my view, both the foundation and the pinnacle of the academic project in primary school. Receiving, interpreting, understanding, remembering, analyzing, evaluating and creating information, symbols, art, knowledge and stories encompasses pretty much all of schooling. Yet most kids in South Africa never get a firm hold on this first rung of the academic ladder. They are perpetually stumbling forward into new grades even as they fall further and further behind the curriculum.

Based on my reading of the academic literature – which may differ from others – there are three main reasons why the majority of kids don’t learn to read in lower primary school.

  1. Foundation Phase teachers (grades 1-3) do not know how to teach reading in a systematic way and pre- and in-service courses teaching this topic are unsystematic, inadequate or nonexistent.
  2. Text-poor environments; the School Monitoring Survey showed that half of schools in quintiles 1-3 (i.e. poorest 60%) had no school or classroom library or even a book corner. (Importantly, research has shown that even when there are libraries they are frequently mismanaged, have inappropriate materials and they are not integrated into reading lessons),
  3. Wasted learning time; A number of South African studies have aimed to measure opportunity-to-learn and have frequently found that less than half of the official curriculum is being covered in the year and fewer than half of the officially scheduled lessons are actually taught. In one study in the North West Grade 6 teachers only taught 40% of scheduled lessons for the year (compared to 60% among schools across the border in Botswana). It is not clear what was happening on the days where there was evidence of teaching or learning.

For me the solution is simple: we need to address these three problems: (1) decide how to teach existing and prospective teachers how to teach reading (as is done all over the world in contexts as linguistically and socioeconomically complex as our own), (2) ensure that all primary schools have a bare minimum number of books and that these are managed effectively, (3) monitor how often teachers are actually teaching and introduce meaningful training first and real consequences second for those teachers who are currently not teaching.

We may not have consensus on how to create jobs or increase growth, but there is consensus on how to teach children to read: with knowledgable teachers who have books and provide their students with enough opportunity to learn. If you want to improve matric, you need to start with reading. It’s not rocket science.

*This article first appeared in The Star on Tuesday the 29th of March 

**Image from here

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.

“Matric Cracks Starting to Show” – my ST article


(The article below first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 10th of January 2016)

Like so many things in South Africa, this year’s matric results are a paradox of good policies badly implemented. This time it was the Minister’s bold ‘promotion policy’ that led to an extra 21% more learners writing matric (644,536 this year compared to 532,860 last year). The policy limits the number of times learners can repeat a grade to once every three years and means fewer students drop out, being ‘promoted’ instead. While her decisive action has led to increased efficiency and improved access, it has also inadvertently caused a huge crack in the matric standardisation process, one that is only now starting to become apparent. The fact that the Department did not properly identify all progressed learners, and that Umalusi did not (and perhaps could not) take account of all progressed learners in their standardisation process calls into question the massive upward adjustments in marks that took place behind the scenes.

As usual, some commentators have myopically focussed on the drop in the matric pass rate, from 76% (2014) to 71% (2015) as if this, in and of itself, were a meaningful indication of anything. It isn’t. Or that it signalled a decline in quality, or harder exams. It doesn’t. Yes, the matric pass rate went down but the number of learners passing it went up. And in fact the real question might not be why the matric pass rate dropped, but why it didn’t drop further. In comparing the media statement from Umalusi and the technical report from the Department, the answer is quite clear. The decision was made to raise the raw marks across the board, from Maths and Physical Science to Life Science, Maths Literacy, History, Accounting, Geography and 24 other subjects. Umalusi themselves make a point of emphasizing that this was an “unprecedented set of adjustments”. When the Maths Literacy pass rate is adjusted from 38% to the final (and publicly reported) 71%, this is most certainly unprecedented, and I would argue, unwarranted. Was the test really so much more difficult than previous years? (This is the only reason why one is allowed to adjust the marks at all). Why did the internal and external moderators not pick up the huge increase in difficulty? Is it not more plausible that the massive drop in pre-adjusted performance was actually due to the additional 112,000 weaker learners who would’ve otherwise dropped out? If so, Umalusi shouldn’t have adjusted.

This is not to say that the Minister was wrong in introducing the promotion policy. Quite the opposite; she was heeding local and international research which shows that excessive repetition is costly, inefficient and has no educational benefit to the learner. Yes, we do need to find ways of preventing and remediating the problem, but rooting out wasteful repetition in the mean time is prudent and wise. A positive effect of this policy and the extra-large class of 2015 meant many more learners taking and passing key subjects, with about 52,000 extra matric passes, 9000 extra maths passes and 15,500 extra bachelor passes.

Both Umalusi and the Department claim that there were only 65,671 progressed learners. Yet there were an extra 111,676 matrics this year. So where did the other 46,005 extra learners come from? The clear answer is that there was a big policy change preventing schools failing learners multiple times and encouraging them to promote weak learners and push them into matric. Secondly, the way provinces record and report who is a progressed learner is highly dubious and varies by province and district. So, although we have approximately 66,000 ‘officially’ progressed learners, we also have 46,000 ‘quasi-progressed’ learners (what Umalusi calls ‘borderline candidates’).

The reason why all of this matters is because it influences the decision of whether to adjust the matric results and by how much. Umalusi is only ever meant to adjust the marks up or down if they believe the exam was harder or easier than previous years. The core assumption in this standardisation process is that the different matric cohorts (2013, 2014 or 2015 matrics) are of equal ability. Thus, any differences between the years can only be because the paper was easier or harder. And this is where the crack emerges. There is simply no way that the 2015 distribution of 645,000 matrics (including progressed and quasi-progressed learners) are as strong as the distribution of 533,000 learners in 2014. Thus the reason the 2015 cohort did so much worse on the raw scores was because of the extra 112,000 weaker learners, not because the tests were harder. We know that Umalusi did not take this into account because there is no way of identifying the 46,000 quasi-progressed learners. In Umalusi’s defence they couldn’t have excluded them even if they had wanted to because provinces didn’t record them. But it doesn’t seem Umalusi excluded these 112,000 (or even the 66,000) learners when they standardised the 2014 and 2015 distributions. This is illogical.

In an unusual change from previous media statements, this year Umalusi included the raw failure rates of subjects (i.e. before any adjustments). This can be compared to the marks in the technical report issued by the Department. The only difference between the two figures are the Umalusi adjustment, a small change due to school based assessments and a small language compensation for second language learners (extra 4 percentage points). When I refer to ‘raw’ and ‘final-adjusted’ pass rates I mean before and after these are accounted for. The three subjects I will focus on here are Maths Literacy, Geography and Business Studies since they all have big increases in enrolments which suggests these were the subjects taken by the progressed and quasi-progressed learners. The differences between the raw pass rate and the final-adjusted pass rate are large for Geography (increased from 66% to 77%), for Business Studies (increased from 54% to 76%) and especially for Maths Literacy (from a shockingly low 38% to 71% after adjustments!). For a national assessment these are incredibly large adjustments.

This could only be justified if the 2015 exams were extraordinarily more difficult in 2015 than in 2014. I simply do not buy it. The internal and external moderators all agreed that these exams were set at the appropriate level. To warrant adjustments of this magnitude they would have had to have been way out in their judgements. Why are we looking for alternative explanations for the big drop in raw marks when this one is staring us in the face? The most logical and obvious reason for the drop is the inclusion of an extra 112,000 weaker learners in 2015. Paper difficulty is marginal by comparison. In maths literacy alone there were 76,791 extra candidates in 2015. Where did these learners come from? It is clear that these are the weaker progressed and borderline candidates and that they are the main reason why the raw marks dropped so much. If so then we cannot just adjust the raw marks upwards, as was done this year.

The Umalusi standardisation process is necessary and probably the best we can do when different papers are written year-on-year, but Umalusi needs to clarify what happened here and in future be more transparent in their standardisation process. Unfortunately, no amount of standardisation can solve the biggest problem in our education system which is the fact that most children attending the poorest 75% of schools do not learn to read for meaning by the end of grade three and are forever behind. Indeed, matric starts in grade 1.

Dr Nic Spaull is an education economist at Stellenbosch University. He can be found on Twitter @NicSpaull and his work can be found at

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).

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.

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.

Martin Gustafsson on “Higher education policy challenges”


In the past three months South African higher education has come into full focus thanks to efforts of students in #FeesMustFall, #OpenStellies, #RhodesMustFall and others. The article below was written by one of RESEP’s researchers, Dr Martin Gustafsson, and first appeared in Business Leadership South Africa’s newsletter. I’ve highlighted the sections I think are most important to note…

Higher Education Policy Challenges – Dr Martin Gustafsson

“I recall a prominent person from organised business declaring some years back at a meeting that the business sector in South Africa had essentially withdrawn from the education policy discourse to avoid conflict with government. Instead, the sector had turned its attention to easier, less controversial areas of involvement, such as partnerships with individual education institutions and bursaries for promising students. This is not a good approach. Smaller projects can make a difference, but policy matters and it is something to which business should pay more attention. Business is well placed to provide policy advice in areas where it is strong: unit costs, cost-effectiveness, trade-offs between priorities and efficient management.

What are some of the difficult policy questions in what has recently become a volatile higher education sector?

Low public spending on higher education has been in the spotlight. This spending comes to 0.6% of GDP, compared to around 1.1% for comparable countries. The problem relates more to low student numbers than low spending per student. If we use countries at South Africa’s level of development as our benchmark, UNESCO education statistics suggest that our public spending per student should be 12% higher, while the number of students should increase by 30%. Current pressures to spend more per student are justified, but this should not be allowed to slow down the growth we have been seeing in enrolments.

Of course growing the sector is not just about enrolling more students, but also about a higher ratio of graduates to enrolments. What in South Africa is referred to as low ‘throughput rates’ – essentially high levels of dropping out and repetition – are commonly considered a core problem. We would be in a better position to respond to this problem if we understood it better.

Low throughput rates are not a peculiarly South African phenomenon. Similar patterns are found in many countries, which suggests that shifting the numbers is not easy. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on dropping out at tertiary level indicates that around 53% of students enrolling for a degree in the United States do not attain the degree. The Council for Higher Education has found the figure to be a rather similar 55% in South Africa. For the OECD as a whole, however, the figure is a better 31%. My own analysis of household data suggests that the ratio of degrees obtained per year to the number of full-time equivalent students, the graduation rate is around 1:7 for South Africa and Brazil.

So what are the circumstances of around half of our university students who do not complete a degree? It is difficult to obtain an overall picture. Sample-based household surveys, such as Stats SA’s Labour Force Survey are of limited use partly because the students in question are a small percentage of the population, and because there are no questions relating to tertiary-level dropping out. Longitudinal surveys conducted by universities or faculties can tell us a bit, though they do not provide a national picture. By far the most commonly cited reason for dropping out is financial constraints. However, students’ academic results and their ability to find funding are closely linked. If their results are poor, it is more difficult to renew funding. Yet the data we have indicates that the tragedy of academically well-performing students who drop out mainly due to funding reasons is substantial. It is a tragedy for the individual, but also for the country’s development, given the skills shortfall in the labour market, and it is bad for the attainment of workplace equity targets.

The OECD report warns against an all-or-nothing approach of classifying all drop-outs as failures and a manifestation of wasted effort. Even an incomplete university education is likely to improve an individual’s wage prospects and productivity in the workplace. It is in the interests of business to advocate for and fund more rigorous research on, for instance, the relationship between wages and the actual range of higher education outcomes which includes non-completed graduates.

The policy debates should be informed by accurate estimates, which exist, of the graduate unemployment rate. This rate is relatively low, and lower than what is suggested by some figures which have been quoted, including figures from an inaccurate January 2012 article in The Economist.

An unfortunate blind spot in our strategies for expanding the university sector is the lack of attention paid to the role of private universities. Countries such as China and Brazil, which have expanded their university enrolments even faster than South Africa, have succeeded in doing so partly through carefully thought out policies governing the emergence of more private universities. Such universities need not be elite relative to public universities, and there are ways of dealing with the risk of sub-standard educational quality offered by unscrupulous institutions.

Brazil’s strategy for combatting low-quality private universities and poor quality higher education at public institutions, is unusual and fascinating. Final year undergraduate students must write, apart from examinations set by the university, a short discipline-specific nationally standardised test which allows the national authorities to gauge which universities are clearly not teaching their students the basics. Moreover, aggregate test results are publicly available, putting students and their families in a more informed position when they select a university. Marcelo Rezende, in an article in Economics of Education Review, argued that the system has helped universities to focus on producing quality graduates.

Two institutions other than the universities are critical for building a better higher education system. Problems in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme are at the core of the 2015 unrest in the sector. The recommendations of the official 2010 review report remain relevant today. Secondly, without further educational quality improvements in the schooling system, the expansion of universities will be difficult. The National Development Plan’s key strategy for improving schools, paying attention to school principals – specifically their hiring, functions, remuneration and performance contracts – is a sensible one.


On the issue of school principals I would strongly recommend following the work of Gabrielle Wills, a PhD student at RESEP who has done some very innovative and useful research on principals and leadership in South Africa. For example see her 2015 Working Paper “A profile of the labour market for school principals in South Africa” which she presented at a conference earlier this year (PPT here).

How #FeesMustFall relates to SA schooling – my Sunday Times article

money ed

[Below is the full and slightly extended text of my Sunday Times article awkwardly titled “While the rich get education, SA’s poor get just ‘schooling’” [8/11/2015]

Looking back on the last 30 days in South Africa you cannot help but conclude that the issue of university exclusion on financial grounds has struck a nerve in the national psyche. There are not many issues in our country where there is universal consensus across issues of race or class, and yet this is one of them.

Deserving students should not be excluded from university because their parents cannot afford the fees. This is unjust, unsustainable and unacceptable as almost everyone now agrees. How we will pay for this is another story – and one that deserves attention – but we all agree that rationing access to limited university positions cannot be based primarily on parental income. Yet, this is exactly what happens in South African schools.

If you can afford to send your child to a former Model-C school or a private school, there is no question about it, you do! I am willing to bet (and AfricaCheck please follow up on this) that there is not a single member of Parliament who sends their child to a no-fee school in our country. Not one. It is an unspoken truth that no-fee schools are for the poor and ‘good’ schools are for the rich. To put this in context, no-fee schools make up the vast majority ranging from 66% to 88%* of schools (depending on if you ask students or principals respectively), and almost all of them are dysfunctional in that they do not impart to students the necessary knowledge, skills and values needed to succeed in life. There are at least 10 different independently conducted nationally-representative surveys attesting to this.

The problem here is two-fold: (1) Most parents cannot afford the fees at these schools since they are frequently as high as university fees (R31,500 per year), and (2) there are very limited places in these schools. Of the 25,741 schools in South Africa only 1,135 are former Model-C schools and 1,681 are independent (private) schools. Put together that accounts for only 11% of total schools. Even if we abolished fees in all these schools – and I’m not sure that is the way to go – you cannot fit 12 million children into 2,816 schools!

I completely agree that a system where access to quality schooling is almost exclusively a function of parental wealth (i.e. our current system) is unjust and must change. But purely from a numbers perspective we simply have to find ways of improving the quality of the 88% of schools that are already no-fee. Thinking about South African schooling as a zero-sum game where there is fixed number of ‘good’ schools will not get us very far.

Why do we have fees?

The reason why we have public schools that charge fees is that policy-makers at the time of the transition were afraid (probably correctly) that if they abolished fees in public schools, all white teachers and white students would go to private schools and we would be stuck with mostly white private schools and exclusively black public schools. Allowing these former white-only schools to charge fees was the trade-off for preventing that outcome. To try and prevent a system that was split entirely on ability to pay, the Constitution declares that no child can be denied admission to a school because his/her parents cannot pay fees.

Yet this is exactly what happens in the majority of cases. How is it that the majority of fee-charging schools manage to maintain a student body drawn primarily from that small subset of the population that can pay fees? Presumably by excluding the ones that can’t pay fees, in formal and informal ways. After speaking to some of the principals of these schools – many of whom are incredibly dedicated and committed to social transformation, I am not under any illusion that there is a simple answer to this or that these are not well-meaning individuals who are trying to maintain a high-quality of education on a very tight budget. Yet the reality remains – . The rich get access to universities and well-paying jobs while the poor get menial jobs, intermittent work or long-term unemployment.

According to the Quarterly Labour-Force Survey of 2014 the South African labour market can be split into four groups with the proportion of the working age population in each group included in brackets:

  • Unemployed (broad definition, 35%),
  • Unskilled (domestic workers and elementary occupations; 18%)
  • Semi-skilled (Clerks, service-workers, shop personnel etc.; 32%)
  • Highly-skilled (Legislators, managers, associated professionals; 15%)

The tragic reality in South Africa is that if your parents are in the ‘top’ part of the labour market (the 15%) then you send your children to the ‘top’ part of the schooling system (which charges fees). That gives your children access to university and to that same ‘top’ part of the labour market that you are currently in. If you are in the ‘bottom’ part of the labour-market (the 85%) then the only schools that you can afford and that are available are the second-tier no-fee schools. However, these schools are of an extremely low quality and the only way to get access to university is in spite of them (with a dedicated teacher or an extremely hard-working student) not because of them. In fact grade 8 students attending fee-charging schools (quintile 5) are two to four times more likely to qualify for university than those attending no-fee schools (quintiles 1-4).

Yes there are exceptions to all of the above. Fee-charging schools do admit some students (perhaps 10-15%) that cannot pay fees, and some that pay partial fees. They also offer scholarships and bursaries. Similarly there are some extremely poor no-fee schools that succeed in spite of the odds – often because of a resilient principal. Yet these are exceptions to the rule or apply only to a small minority.

While the education crisis that South Africa finds itself in has its roots in the apartheid regime of institutionalized inequality, this fact does not absolve the current administration from its responsibility to provide a quality education to every child in South Africa not only the rich. After 21 years of democratic rule most Black children continue to receive an education which condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm, not the exception. This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self-worth.

In short, poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social station of their parents, irrespective of their own motivation or ability. Until such a time as the Department of Basic Education and the ruling administration are willing to seriously address the underlying issues in education, at whatever political or economic cost, the existing patterns of underperformance and inequality will remain unabated.

*The 88% figure is calculated using the 2015 Q1 DBE Masterlist and only counting as ‘fee-paying’ those schools that were categorised as “No” for ‘NoFeeSchool’. It is not clear what the fee status is of the schools that are currently listed as “To Be Updated” and “Not Applicable”. For conservative estimates I would go with 66% from the Action Plan (see pg50 here). The figures for the number of ex-Model C schools were also taken from the 2015 Masterlist – see “ExDept”. 


Dr Nic Spaull, from the Research on Socio-Economic Policy group at Stellenbosch University, is a contributor to the South African Child Gauge 2015, which focuses on youth and the intergenerational transmission of poverty. The publication was/will be released this week by the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town and is available on

  • My @Powerfm987 interview on the Child Gauge 2015 where we spoke about education, reading by age 10, school fees and inequality, teacher training, priorities and whether or not government is working with researchers in education (short answer: yes, but probably not enough)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End of opening remarks]

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[Guest blog-post] Takalani Sesame

[Below is a guest blog-post written by Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane of Takalani Sesame. I usually don’t allow unsolicited guest blog posts but I really liked Takalani’s innovative way of engaging with children on serious issues in playful ways. I also watched Takalani as a kid 🙂 I especially like their development of an HIV-positive muppet (Kami) to help inform children about HIV and destigmatise children and adults who are HIV-positive, and the translation of some of their programs into African languages. I’ll let Lerato tell you a little more about their current innovations… ]


Research-Informed & Data-Driven Children’s Television Goes Online: The Takalani Sesame Approach

– Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane

Inform, improve, measure … repeat. This research philosophy operates across all Sesame Workshop productions, including Takalani Sesame. Sesame productions reach 156 million children daily in more than 150 countries making it the world’s single largest informal educator. Since 2000, the Takalani Sesame education team has contributed to the pool of more than 1 000 studies worldwide that Sesame Workshop has conducted over its 40-year existence.

Takalani Sesame regularly undergoes formative assessments, finding out what young children are learning and what they like. We incorporate their feedback. Some changes defy adult preferences and challenge professional experiences, but that’s alright because we have a focus: the most important voice is the child’s.

Being a data-driven show, Takalani Sesame gathers significant amounts of information from its target markets. In addition to our core audience (3 to 7 year olds), groups that matter are their grown-ups (parents and teachers) and their older siblings (highly influential others).

Where is Takalani Sesame active?

While best known for being a television programme, Takalani Sesame is also broadcast on radio, and there are regular outreach events in the communities we serve. We aim to reach children in every way possible, including through the most up-to-date technological ways. Most recently, we expanded our digital footprint by launching a dedicated YouTube channel alongside our two websites, social media identities and instant-messaging efforts.

The Takalani Sesame YouTube channel ( is updated regularly and features episode segments in five languages – Sepedi, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Tshivenda and English. These are bite-size “edutainment” offerings that not only embrace multilingualism, but also help to further the educational mandates as outlined by our stakeholders and partners – the Department of Basic Education (DBE), Sanlam, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and Sesame Workshop.


How is our target market using digital?

To understand our digital visitors better, we spent time in rural and urban crèches and primary schools. There were expected confirmations: more capable cellphones are getting more affordable and our lowly paid teachers are buying them; as the line between feature phones and smart phones narrows, mobile capabilities are advancing faster than some users can keep up with; data remains too pricey for many, even the employed, so free instant-messaging services and lower-cost internet usage dominate; and, the digital divide is also about age and younger educators are more aware of what is possible than older educators.

Case Study: Road Safety in South Africa

When Takalani Sesame piloted a road-safety initiative, the project team undertook research at several levels:

  • A literature review of road safety locally and abroad;
  • Focus groups with parents, teachers and community members before material development;
  • Preliminary testing of drafts at a volunteer school using retired teachers as data collectors;
  • Assessments after teacher training to see what could happen when development is rolled out at scale; and,
  • A monitoring and evaluation component by an independent entity.

All that before we could introduce the initiative to South Africa.


The transfer of knowledge applies across all our platforms. We’ve produced supplementary textbooks, educational materials, outreach programmes, literacy projects and many other initiatives tailored to the needs of the communities we serve.

Case Study: HIV/Aids Awareness Among Children

As part of our launch of the HIV-positive muppet Kamogelo (AKA Kami) in 2004, independent researchers confirmed that a child who has watched Takalani Sesame is four times more likely to have some knowledge of HIV/Aids than a child who hasn’t. Parents and educators who watched our television special “Talk to Me”, were twice as likely to talk to their children about HIV/Aids than those who had not watched it.

A national survey commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation further showed that our young viewers demonstrate measurable gains in HIV/Aids knowledge and attitudes, including basic knowledge of the disease, blood safety, de-stigmatisation, and coping with illness.


[Image credit: Sesame Workshop]

Supporting the DBE’s White Paper on e-Education

In addition to wide research and market studies, Takalani Sesame leans on its partners for a universe of data and policies. This is especially true of the partnership with the Department of Basic Education (DBE).

A case in point is our embrace of the DBE’s White Paper on e-Education. We have taken up the mandate for Takalani Sesame to live in digital spaces. In 2013 we introduced a fun website [], a Facebook page and a Twitter handle @LoveTakalani. In 2014, we unveiled a special parenting, teacher resource and information-based website for educators and parents [] and this year we’ve added the YouTube channel to further extended our digital footprint.


The big reveal during our most recent site-based digital-behaviour information gathering exercises was that a popular service was the e-publication of research and policy papers. We intentionally select practice-focused scholarship and this seems to be paying off.

Interestingly though, we found we spent most of our grassroots excursion time teaching teachers how to use their feature and smart phones. And once they figure out how to go online, wow…


Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane is the Senior Multimedia Executive at Ochre Media, co-producers of Takalani Sesame and producers of many other groundbreaking programmes. She is a mother, teacher and activist with 30 years of experience in over 20 countries.