It rained tonight and I thought about crying


It rained tonight and I thought about crying.

Last week I read about a drought in Yemen and a dying camel.
The severity of the drought was unclear
Until they saw the dying camels under a tree.
Apparently the dormant grass was about to open, as it always had
But the rains never came and the seeds never opened.

We don’t get camels here.
But I can feel them dying anyway.


Do girls do better than boys at school & university? (my Sunday Times article)

The article below was published in the Sunday Times. The article is based on a Working Paper that my co-author (Hendrik van Broekhuizen) and I published this week. The full PDF of that article is available here.  I’ve extended that article slightly by including a few more graphs from the paper. 


Do girls do better than boys at school and at university? That’s a question that occupies the minds of many parents and teachers. The short answer is yes, they do. Many people think girls are disadvantaged in education in South Africa, and while that might be somewhat true among the very poorest girls, on average girls actually do better than boys. They learn to read much quicker than boys do (which is true of pretty much all middle- and high-income countries). In South Africa girls also perform better in mathematics. Looking at large nationally-representative surveys from 2011 and 2015 we can see that by Grade 4 girls are a full year of learning ahead of their male peers in reading, despite being in the same grade. By Grade 5 girls are about 40% of a year of a learning ahead of boys in mathematics. 

But do these advantages continue into high school and university? That’s a question that my co-author (Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen) and I tried to address in a paper we released this week. To do this we followed the entire matric class of 2008 into and through all public universities in the country. Using data from the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) we followed all the students from the matric 2008 class that went on to university and followed them for a six-year period (2009-2013). There were 112,402 students in our dataset! Because the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) collects detailed information on the results of all students we were able to see whether or not there was also a female advantage in matric and at university. 

The results are truly remarkable. We find strong evidence of a large female advantage that continues to grow at each hurdle of the higher education process. To be specific, relative to their male counterparts we find that there were 27% more females who qualified for university, 34% more who enroll in university, 56% more who complete any undergraduate qualification and 66% more who attain a bachelor’s degree. This despite there being roughly equal numbers of boys and girls at the start of school. 

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Another striking finding is the very large drop-off from Matric to degree attainment. The diagram below shows that for every 100 females in matric there are only 85 males in matric. And for every 100 females in matric only 8 females will complete an undergraduate degree within six years, with even lower numbers for males (only 5 males).

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Because of the richness of the data we can also see whether this advantage remains after controlling for various background factors like race, age, socioeconomic status etc. We can also control for school-level achievement. We find that this large female advantage remains after controlling for school-level performance, and exists for all subgroups of race, age, socioeconomic status, and province of origin.

But perhaps it is because females choose ‘easier’ fields of study than males – and that explains the ‘advantage’? The short answer is no. We examine 19 fields of study and find that females are significantly more likely to get a degree in 12 of the 19 fields (often by substantial margins), and are significantly less likely to get a degree in five of the 19 fields. However, this is almost entirely because they do not access these traditionally ‘male’ programs rather than due to lower completion rates once they are in. Only in Engineering and Computer Science do girls do worse than boys once they are accepted to the program. But while there are these  two fields where girls do worse, there are nine where boys do worse (including Health Sciences, Business Studies, Natural Sciences, Psychology etc.). One of the most interesting findings of the paper was that females are always and everywhere 20% less likely to dropout than their male counterparts (including in traditionally ‘male’ fields like Engineering and Computer Science), even after controlling for field of study, race, age, socioeconomic status, and location.

It is important to recognize that South Africa is not an outlier in this regard. The emergence of a female advantage in education (both at school and at university) is a global trend among middle and high-income countries. In the 33 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – mainly a club of rich countries – 58% of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women (in SA it is 61%). The question we usually get asked is why is this the case? We don’t really know yet, but the best international evidence points to the fact that girls have more and better “non-cognitive skills.” These are things such as self-control, self-motivation, dependability, sociability, perceptions of self-worth, locus of control, time-preference and delayed gratification. Other scholars argue that schooling is set up in such a way that it favors girls over boys, and favours the traits that society expects from girls or, alternatively those that girls just naturally have more of.

Another conundrum is how it’s possible for girls to do better at school and better at university but then worse in the labour-market? Women in South Africa get paid about 15-17% less than men do for the exact same work (again this is true around the world). The answers here are also complex and link to some easily observable features of society – like who is expected to care for children – and some less observable features like patriarchal norms and gender discrimination.

What our research shows is that girls in South Africa have a clear advantage at school and at university. Any conversation about ‘gender equality’ needs to take into account the disadvantage faced by boys at school and university, but also why this reverses when one moves into the labor-market.


DBE Research Protocols

DBE protocls

If you’ve ever wanted to conduct research on education in South Africa you may have been a little confused about the processes to follow when requesting data, getting approval to visit schools etc. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has recently released research protocols for requesting data, getting research projects approved etc. There are two documents that you need to complete and email to them:

I think this is a great step towards standardising and formalising the processes for interacting with the DBE around research. I personally think that all of this could be done on a Google Form or a Surveymonkey questionnaire, eliminating all the paperwork, but baby steps 🙂

Creating your own excitement


For a while now my blog has only been about ‘professional’ things in my life: links and presentations related to education, current research and that kind of stuff. But in the beginning I had always intended to combine my ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ in the same place. I like to read about other people’s lives, not just their ‘work’. What do they think about children? spirituality? where do they go when they are scared? That stuff interests me much more than the stuff they publish. And so I think that documenting my own thoughts, beliefs, doubts, realisations and anxieties – that stuff is probably as central to my work as any academic argument that resonates with me. And all these things affect what I spend my time on. And I suppose that’s what life is; what we spend our time on.


So this is an attempt to try and bring back some of the personal into my largely ‘professionalised’ blog. I think one of the reasons why it morphed into a more work-life-only space was that I was thinking too much about who was reading my blog and whether deeply personal reflections were appropriate. So I’ve resolved that question by deciding that basically the only sustainable approach for me is to be able to bring all of who I am to whatever I’m doing. That means I can’t ring-fence my work and not talk about politics or social justice at the dinner table. It is a pet-peeve (read: serious fucking irritation) when people at dinner say things like “Can we move onto talking about something less intense?” FFS. This is when I take two deep breaths and usually make eye-contact with a close friend with a deadpan expression that broadly means “Why are we here?” or (more frequently) “Why did we invite this person to dinner?” Now, don’t get me wrong. I love banter and humor or lols as much as the next person, but when small-talk dominates the discussion I genuinely feel like I am wasting my whole life. I kid you not, some people can spend 45 minutes talking about whether one should put the fire-lighters on top of the charcoal or underneath the charcoal. I die.


Anyways, that’s all just a sidebar to say that I can’t dichotomise work and play easily. And I am actively moving in the other direction. I’ve been mulling over some life things for a while and thought I’d create a listicle (who doesn’t love a good listicle!). Some realisations or thoughts or rants or text on the page:

(1) I want to live my life more deliberately. I agree that sounds super corny and cheap but it’s in relation to a quote from Paul Kalanithi’s book:

“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?”

I’ve explained the whole realisation in a lot more detail here. But the essence is that we typically regret the things we didn’t do rather than those we did (duh!) and that doubt and fear kill many more dreams than failure or rejection do.


(2) I want to work with people I enjoy spending time with. 

I’ve decided that I will make a conscious effort to find myself in situations where I get to work with people whose company I enjoy. I think I landed with my bum in the butter work-wise in that I get to do that pretty much every day. The people I work with at RESEP are such lovely mensches. And more recently I have started my own team of people at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment with our Funda Wande project (website imminent!). Essentially a multi-media course to teach Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading. I get so much energy and inspiration from the people I work with and I want to find ways of making sure that we find time to laugh and joke even when things are tight and deadlines are looming. More on this in the future…

(3) There are lots of people talking-about-the-work and very few people doing-the-work.  On the surface these two types of people look quite similar and play in similar spaces but in reality there is a huge chasm between the two. Cutting ribbons, giving talks, writing op-eds, making policies – essentially speaking about what needs to be done – are people I increasingly have less and less time for. This is not to say that just because people are ‘in the trenches’ that what they are doing is more important or more honorable or whatever. It’s more about whether or not people are actually tackling a particularly vexing issue or not. There is a big difference (which I am realising daily!) between saying “We need to develop benchmarks in African languages” and realising “This involves a lot of work, will cost a lot of money but it’s not something we can get around. For whatever reason no one is actually doing this. OK let’s get to work.” On this particular issue of benchmarks in African languages HERE is our first stab at this (paper to follow soon!).


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(4) You have to create your own excitement. I think this is probably my biggest realisation and one that I keep coming back to. I have a tendency to fall into an external locus of control (“The belief that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power“). My knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t great in life is that this is because someone else has not done something they should have. lol. One of my favourite lines is “Just do your job.” Needless to say I loved the memes that were generated when Kim Davis (a county clerk in Kentucky) didn’t to do her job and defied the US Supreme Court in refusing to register gay marriages. It spawned a whole series of protests and memes with the hashtag #doyourjob and the like. Two of my favourites:



Anyways that’s a roundabout way of saying that I often find reasons outside of me, essentially, as to why things aren’t going well. And therefore the solution is that those things outside of me need to change before I can be happy again. This is obviously a really shitty life strategy. One of the perennial issues is excitement. Energy. Enthusiasm. Drive. Doing lots of work is easy when the fires are burning and the drive is there in full flow. The problem is when it goes, as it does. What do I do when I don’t actually want to jump out of bed and prepare for a presentation or write or read or talk or do anything that involves me getting out of bed? Sometimes I go to the beach for 2 days and do nothing but lie in the sun and listen to music. This is an extremely effective tonic. I usually get very bored of that and super excited about something I was working on and jump back into work. But what happens when that doesn’t work (or it’s winter!)? I’m still figuring this one out but I think the answer lies somewhere in the neighborhood of things like agency and being able to talk yourself out of moods or ruts, taking actions that you know will help (organise a dinner, see your therapist, encourage friends, do something you haven’t done before etc.), reflect. Be an adult. lol.

mediocreany idea

(5) The urgent and the important – make sure you find time for important stuff not just urgent stuff. This is a very new realisation. I think it dawned on me that I was mortgaging people for short-term deadlines. I know I am late to this party but I’m realising that deadlines never disappear they are only ever replaced by other deadlines. Maybe losing the joy of work is the canary in the cageThe first big warning sign that you need to take a step back and re-evaluate what’s happening in your life. And maybe that’s what this is; realising that I like the people in my life. I like the work I do. I like the country I live in. Life is good and I shouldn’t forget it. And no flurry of deadlines or seemingly urgent things should mess with that. That’s me for now.


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EGRS: Probably the most important education research/intervention post-apartheid

EGRS logo final Setswana

Breaking News: New ‘gold-standard’ study finds improvement of 40% of a year of learning in reading for disadvantaged children in South Africa. (At least that would be the title I’d pick if I was a sub-editor reporting on EGRS!)

In South Africa and around the world today there are many reasons to be despondent – whether about inequality, the environment or some of our political overlords. But every now and then we learn of truly amazing things that are happening despite all the shit in the world, and the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) is the best example of this in South Africa. The researchers leading the study were Stephen Taylor (DBE), Brahm Fleisch (Wits) and Mpumi Mohohlwane (DBE).

For those of you who don’t already know about it, have you been living under a rock? The EGRS study was a large randomised control trial that aimed to determine which (if any) interventions improve early grade reading outcomes in home language (Setswana) in 230 Quintile 1-3 schools in the North West province in South Africa. It was implemented in 2015 (Grade 1) and 2016 (Grade 2) and today the final results of the intervention were released and they are very encouraging! I would suggest everyone reads the EGRS Policy Summary Report and I include the great infographics below:

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There are also three additional EGRS reports:

My Q&A with Nali Bali

Usually the sensational titles that sub-editors choose to use drives me crazy. This time I actually love that they focus on this quote about the lack of NRF Chairs in African Languages: 100% true!! 

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The edited Q&A is available on the TimesLive site here. But my unedited answers are here:

You’ve talked before about reading being South Africa’s biggest solvable problem. But the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey puts the number of Grade Four children who cannot read for meaning in any language at 58%. Where to begin turning this around?

I think there are a number of ‘basics’ that we need to get in place to rectify this problem. They can broadly be grouped under ‘Time’, ‘Text’ and ‘Teachers’.

Teachers: I think we need to ensure that all teachers actually know how to teach reading. Unfortunately most teachers have not been taught what the various components of reading are (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and motivation) or how these fit together into a cohesive whole. Currently teachers focus on communalized activities like chorusing and offer very little differentiation or individualized instruction or assessment. There is little formal teaching of vocabulary, spelling, writing or phonics and almost no understanding of how to develop the most important skill in reading: comprehension. Countless research studies have shown that our teachers simply do not know how to teach reading and writing systematically. 

Text: Given that 70% of children in South Africa are learning to read in an African language in grades 1-3 before transitioning into English in Grade 4, we need to ensure that there are enough texts available to actually teach reading. I’ve recently looked at the number of graded readers that exist in the African languages and most series have 15 very short books per year from grades 1-3. This is simply unacceptable. If one looks at wealthy English schools children are reading up to 200 graded books per year. They usually take one home per day. We really need to increase the number and quality of resources available in African languages.

Time: A number of studies have shown that teachers are only using about 50% of the instructional time that is available during the year. As a result children do not have enough opportunity to learn to read.

At grade four level, children are expected to transition between the phases of ‘learn to read’ and ‘read to learn’ – essentially being able to read for meaning. Yet it’s also the age when schools tend to switch children from mother-tongue education to English-language instruction. That sounds like a recipe for disaster?

The transition to English in grade 4 is fraught with difficulties. For learners that have not become literate in their home language in grades 1-3 it is almost impossible to become literate in a second language (English). I think this points to two things: (1) deficiencies in how we are teaching home language in grades 1-3 and (2) deficiencies in how we are teaching English First Additional Language (EFAL) in grades 1-3. There is also a dearth of research on this transiton. The best research on this comes from the work of Carol MacDonald in the Threshold Project which was done in 1989! We need more research on the transition and how to ensure that learners are not only bilingual but also biliterate.

It’s worth noting that a number of other African countries also transition to English in Grade 4 and have much better reading outcomes than we do. The transition to English in Grade 4 is certainly not unique to South Africa.

Text-poor environments are definitely a contributor to our national literacy crisis. What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve come across to encourage production of books in indigenous languages?

 I think the move to develop graded readers in the African languages from scratch is a great example of progress. Up until recently most of the graded readers that had been developed in African languages were just translations from English, and often would lost all the ‘grading’ in the translations. This is because some words and themes that are ‘easy’ in English are actually very difficult in some African languages. The Vula Bula books by Molteno are a good example of de novo graded readers that were developed with the concept of grading in the specific language. I think the work of Nali Bali is also really important – developing stories written by home-language speakers and easily accessible to children.

It’s not just hard to find published literature in indigenous languages, there’s a dearth of linguistic research too – there are no oral reading fluency benchmarks for African languages, for example. Where would you particularly like to see significant change?

100%. This drives me absolutely crazy. Why on earth are there no National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs in teaching reading in African languages?! Why is early grade reading research not a national research priority with priority funding? This is such a huge scandal in South Africa. The absolute failure of PanSALB to do what it was mandated to do by Parliament is a disgrace. While it’s great to see individual publishers and authors pushing forward and publishing books and stories in African languages, ultimately we need the funding and commitment from government that this is a national priority.

You’ve talked about making the achieving of mother tongue reading competency by grade three a prioritized national goal. What – and how long – might it take to achieve this?

To be 100% honest this will take time. It takes time to train teachers. Get high quality resources I nevery classroom and every home. We could create a great campaign and say that it needs to be done by 2020 and try and galvanize everyone, but that’s just not how long these things take. I think a ten-year time-horizon is probably more realistic. Even that is really ambitious. The Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen uses the Japanese experience in the mid-19th century as a classic example of the relentless focus on basic education. Soon after the Meiji restoration of 1868 The Fundamental Code of Education was issued (1872) which stated that there must be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” By 1913 the country was almost entirely literate, publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States, even though it was much poorer than both of these countries. But none of this happens without a country-wide commitment to eradicating illiteracy and ensuring that every South African can read for meaning and pleasure.


My ‘Lead the Change’ Q&A with AERA SIG

See below for a Q&A session I did for the Augest edition of “Lead the Change” run by the AERA SIG on Educational Change. PDF here.

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