Reading in African Languages: An Annotated Bibliography 2004-2017 (Pretorius, 2018)


I think there is now broad-based agreement that most South African children do not acquire the skills and dispositions they need to read for meaning and enjoyment. The PIRLS Literacy 2016 results show that 78% of Grade 4 students couldn’t read in any language. The way forward is therefore to ‘get reading right.’ Given that more than 70% of South African children learn to read in an African language in Grades R-3, we need to understand more about how children learn to read in these languages, and that inevitably involves research. Do children from different language groups learn to read in different ways? The language structures (orthographies) of South African languages are quite different to each other. As we’ve pointed out in some of our earlier work, the same sentence in different languages looks very different:


Should we be teaching Nguni languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa, SiSwati etc.) and Sotho languages (SeSotho, Setswana, Sepedi) in different ways? Or are these just peripheral differences that don’t change the overall approach. At the moment there is not a large body of research on this. However, Prof Lilli Pretorius has recently published an annotated bibliography of 40 studies (2004-2017) titled Reading in African Languages an Annotated Bibliography 2004-2017 under the PRIMTED banner. I include their blurb below:

“This annotated bibliography was compiled by Professor Lilli Pretorius of UNISA as part of the Primary Teacher Education Project (PrimTEd). It gives a summary account of research that has been done on reading in African languages from 2004 to 2017, more specifically on languages belonging mainly to the family of Southern African Bantu languages. It comprises over 40 annotated entries, mainly research articles from accredited journals, chapters from books and postgraduate dissertations or theses, and also lists several other sources closely related to reading in the African languages. Although it was originally compiled in 2017, it is designed in such a way that new entries can be added to it as new research emerges, and it will be regularly updated.”

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This is a great resource both for those just starting out in the field, but also for established researchers looking for an overview of what’s out there.

Many thanks to the Lilli and the PRIMTED team for doing and initiating this important work. I believe the English-as-First-Additional-Language (EFAL) annotated bibliography is soon to be released.

For those interested here is my Q&A with Lilli from 2014.

The stories we tell ourselves


There are not many things that are perennially interesting to me, but one of them is the stories that we tell ourselves. We sometimes think that what we do, or think, or feel is  just a reaction. ‘Such-and-such happened which is why I acted or thought or felt the way I did’. Yet so much of how we experience the world is determined by the stories that we tell ourselves. The charming, gay neurologist Oliver Sachs puts it well:

“We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a “narrative”, and that this narrative is us, our identities. If we wish to know about a man, we ask “What is his story – his real, inmost story?” for each of us is a biography, a story.”

I’m currently thinking about this in relation to inequality and education in a chapter I am working on, but that’s more about a collective story that we tell ourselves as a country. Thomas Piketty tells us that “Inequality in every country needs to be justified. You need to tell a story about why this level of inequality is acceptable or unacceptable.” That one quote has been really generative for me lately but right now I’m thinking about  stories on a personal level.

While I was overseas for a conference last week I came across a children’s book called “and tango makes three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. I love buying my niece and nephew books to read because they can never have too many books. But this book hit home for me and actually made me teary in the book store. I thought I’d share it here in the hope that others will come to the same realisation I did…




This last page was especially moving for me. As someone who grew up gay in a straight world, all the stories I was read as a child (and in fact all the books that existed in our bookstore and our library) had only straight characters. Princes marrying princesses, boys building, girls cooking, and any number of iterations on traditional gender roles and ‘normal’ sexual identities. Now that we do have stories stories with gay protagonists or children that don’t fit the norm I think some parents are reluctant to buy them. Their logic (I think) is that they don’t want to influence their child’s sexuality – or, more accurately, – to influence them in a non-heterosexual way. I find this incredibly ignorant. Nine times out of ten when you probe modern educated parents (and scientists and geneticists) they will agree that sexuality and gender identity are more likely to be about genetics (or epigenetics) than anything else. Yet this persists.

What they seem to miss is the quiet violence done to their children by presenting only one version of the world, one story, and possibly one that they do not see themselves in. Children map the world by the stories they are told and the stories they learn to tell themselves. Brene Brown has this great quote where she says that if you go around looking for a reason why you don’t belong, you will always find one. And I think this is one of the costs of growing up and not seeing yourself represented in the stories you’re told. You feel you don’t belong.

I want my niece and nephew to grow up in a world where they know that whoever they  are, they belong. Different ≠ wrong. The stories we tell ourselves, and the ones we tell our children, matter. My niece and nephew have hundreds of books with stories about everything under the sun. I want to make sure that I’m in one of those stories, and that if they are too, that’s also totally OK. Whoever they are and turn out to be, they belong.


Throwing basic education under the bus (My Business Day article)

The article below first appeared in the Business Day on the 16th of April 2018. Their link here.

Basic Education Funding

It’s not every day that Treasury reports can make you want to drink in the middle of the day. Then again, it’s not every day you realise a country-wide crisis has been brewing under your nose for a decade and no one noticed it. Over the last seven years there has been a consistent decline in the purchasing power of per-learner expenditure on basic education and no one has said a thing. To put it bluntly, funding per learner has declined by 8% in seven years. In so many ways this undoes any of the advances we think we might have made in education over the last seven years.

For a while now we’ve known that something funny happened in South Africa between 2003 and 2005 when births spiked by 13% and continued to stay high for a few years before coming down slightly in 2008. The leading explanation at the moment is the roll out of antiretrovirals (ARVs) over the same period. True to form, Grade 1 enrolments spiked by 13% five years later in 2008 with subsequent enrolment data showing this cohort slowly working its way through the education system with similarly large cohorts following in their footsteps each year. This group, which we’ve dubbed the ‘silent ship’ in our research group, is now in grade 8 in 2018. This weird demographic phenomenon has been confirmed by Martin Gustafsson’s comprehensive analysis of three different datasets; the Home Affairs birth registration data as well as age-specific data in the Department of Basic Education’s Annual Survey of Schools (ASS) data and the Learner Unit Record Information Tracking System (LURITS).

The aggregate effect of these increased births (and higher retention in the schooling system more generally) has meant that there were about 670,000 more learners in 2016 than there were in 2010. That means larger classes together with fewer books and fewer teachers per learner. But this is only half the story behind this unknown crisis. The other half is that there have been above-inflation increases in teacher salaries for over a decade. A decade of government gazettes together with Treasury’s Estimates of Provincial Revenue and Expenditure (EPRE) documents shows that between 2010 and 2016 teacher salaries increased by 57% compared to a 38% increase in the CPI (regular inflation). The problem with this is that total expenditure on education has only been increasing by inflation, or about 7% a year and therefore hasn’t kept up with these two factors (increased enrolment and above-inflation salary increases). Seen together this has translated into a significant decline in the purchasing power of expenditure on basic education between 2010 and 2017. Looking at the Medium Term Expenditure Framework the decline is set to continue. In 2010 we spent R17,822 on average per child dropping to R16,435 in 2017 and projected to decrease further to R15,963 by 2019 (all in 2017 Rands).  This is a 10% decline in per learner funding in ten years (2010 to 2019).

This decline in state funding is already starting to show up in international assessments. According to the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) the average class size of Grade 4 classes in South Africa was 40 in 2011 which has now increased to 45 learners per class in 2016. Yet this masks that the largest increases were found in the poorest schools. Among the poorest 60% of learners, class sizes increased from 41 to 48 learners per class between 2011 and 2016. For the richest 10% of learners, class sizes only increased from 33 to 35 learners per class. Over the same period there was no improvement in reading outcomes across the country. It’s highly unlikely that this systematic decline in per learning spending over the last seven years is unrelated to the stagnant learning outcomes reported in PIRLS over the same period.

Given the centrality of correct discounting to the overall findings here it is worth briefly explaining why using a traditional inflation rate is inappropriate for education. This is also likely the reason that this fact has gone largely unnoticed in South Africa. Essentially, because total expenditure on basic education has increased by 7,1% per year between 2010 and 2017 – keeping up with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation over the period – most analysts have thought that the education budget has been keeping pace with the overall rise in costs. But CPI is the wrong index to deflate education expenditures because more than 80% of expenditures are on teacher salaries rather than a typical basket of goods. The salient question when discounting expenditures on education is thus, “How much money is required in 2017 to buy the same level of inputs used in 2010?” To do this requires the construction of an education-specific discounting index that is weighted at 80% of the cost of teachers (calculated using wage-bargaining agreements in the Education Labour Relations Council) and 20% weighted at regular CPI (for non-personnel expenditures like textbooks). Using this composite index allows us to ask how much it would cost to buy the basket of education ‘goods’ that we bought in 2010 (80% teachers and 20% non-teachers). The results are alarming. Figure 1 above shows the overall trend in per learner purchasing power in each province between 2010 and 2019 (all figures in 2017 Rands and 2017 to 2019 figures are based on MTEF projections).

All of the above is even more concerning in the context of ongoing fiscal austerity and significant increases in budget allocations to higher education. As a result of the #FeesMustFall movement, former President Zuma announced a new government policy of free higher education for poor and working-class families (reiterated by President Ramaphosa in 2018). This is now reflected in the 2018/19 budget where Higher Education received an additional R57 billion over the next three years to fund the new mandate. Basic education is being thrown under the bus as higher education becomes the new shining star.

Without detracting from the importance of decreasing financial exclusion to higher education for poor and working-class students, it must also be stressed that at most 15% of a cohort go to higher education in South Africa. Among the poorest 70% of the population it is less than 5% of a cohort who actually enter university. The battle is won or lost in primary school. Given the hierarchical nature of schooling and that university access and success are predicated in the foundations built in primary school and high school, it is an extremely short-sighted policy to continue on the current trajectory of declining per-pupil public expenditure on basic education and rising per-pupil public spending on higher education.

To all who have the inclination to look it is clear that the low quality of primary schooling in South Africa is the binding constraint – both to further educational success, but also to dignified employment, meaningful civic engagement and economic growth. Our most recent assessments show 78% of Grade 4’s can’t read for meaning and 66% of Grade 5’s can’t do basic maths. There is no conceivable route for South Africa to move from the status quo to any desirable future that does not first chart the route of significant improvements in primary education. And to put it bluntly, that is simply not possible when the overall pie is shrinking, a shrinking that is felt most severely by the poorest learners in the most challenging contexts. Treasury needs to re-assess how it is funding basic education and explain why there has been a significant decline in the actual resources available on the ground to educate South African learners.

The Comprehension Iceberg: Developing reading benchmarks in African languages


For the last few years we have been working on a project exploring reading in three African languages; isiZulu, Xitsonga and Northern Sotho (Sepedi). This was part of an ESRC-funded study looking at “Leadership for Literacy” and schools in challenging contexts. This week we published the first of a series of working papers on some of our results. The paper is titled “Investigating the comprehension iceberg: Developing empirical benchmarks for early grade reading in agglutinating African languages  (2018) and is co-authored with colleagues and friends Prof Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA) and Mpumi Mohohlwane (DBE), who is now also doing her PhD at RESEP.

In the paper we argue here that we need to move beyond a repetitive focus on low comprehension outcomes; this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface there is widespread evidence that most children have not acquired the basic ‘tools’ for reading success – the ability to accurately and fluently decode letters and words and move from an effortful activity to an automated skill. Knowing that 78% of Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning in any language is important and sobering information, but probably not as helpful as knowing which components of reading children are struggling with and why teachers are struggling to teach them.  If children and teachers are ‘falling at the first hurdle’ (Taylor, 1989) does it make sense to focus on the seventh or eighth hurdle and ask why learners and teachers are not making it over?

One of the important contributions of the paper is that we try to estimate benchmarks for these three African languages. While many benchmarks exist in English there are currently no benchmarks in African languages and unfortunately you cannot just version the English benchmarks for the African languages because the language structures (orthographies) are so different. This is easiest to explain using an example:

Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 11.08.10 AMSo in isiZulu the first sentence is only 3 words while in Northern Sotho (Sepedi) it’s 13 words. We go on to show that there are also large differences in ‘required fluency’ across these languages and that accuracy rates and speed differ between conjunctive and disjunctive languages – see below.

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“Comparison across the languages shows that accuracy seems to be more important for fluent reading in isiZulu than in Northern Sotho or Xitsonga. The isiZulu learners reading at 21 wcpm or faster are reading with 95% accuracy or higher. In contrast, 95% accuracy is only associated with reading at 51 wcpm or faster in Northern Sotho and 31 wcpm or faster in Xitsonga. One of the reasons why Decile-1 learners are reading so slowly is that they are making mistakes on every second or third word. The fastest Northern Sotho readers (wcpm=107) and Xitsonga readers (wcpm=91) in the sample made no mistakes whatsoever.” (p12)

This can also be seen visually:

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We then use this information and some rudimentary comprehension outcomes to benchmark the different languages:

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We’d encourage those interested in this type of work to read the full paper – if you have any comments or suggestions we’d love to hear from you! Please include them in the comments below.


The importance of learning to read in mother-tongue is widely acknowledged in the linguistics literature yet reading acquisition in African languages remains under-researched and under-theorized. While numerous studies have highlighted the low levels of comprehension among learners reading in African languages in South Africa, little has been done to understand what lies beneath this ‘comprehension iceberg.’ In this paper we present new empirical evidence on reading outcomes and the subcomponents of reading for 785 Grade 3 learners across three languages (Northern Sotho, Xitsonga and isiZulu), drawn from 61 primary schools in South Africa. This is the largest sample of such learners to date. Using an adapted EGRA-type assessment we assessed letter-sounds, single-word reading, non-word reading, oral reading fluency and oral comprehension. From this data we present results on fluency, accuracy and comprehension and how these might relate to each other in these morphologically rich agglutinating languages. We also show that there are large differences in reading subcomponents between languages with conjunctive and disjunctive orthographies. Our results suggest that there are minimum thresholds of accuracy and oral reading fluency in each language, below which it is virtually impossible to read for meaning. These are 52-66 wcpm in Northern Sotho, 39-48 wcpm in Xitsonga and 20-32 wcpm in isiZulu. We argue that there is a strong need for empirical language-specific norms and benchmarks for indigenous African languages and present our benchmarks for these three languages as a move in that direction.

“A city drowning in incompetence” – my Daily Maverick rant about the water situation in CT


(This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on the 22nd of January 2018.)

A city drowning in incompetence

This week the City of Cape Town announced that at the current rate the taps will run dry in Cape Town on the 21st of April and will soon announce the City’s 200 water collection points. These are central locations that can be secured with riot-police and include places like sports fields and schools. The Mayor has explained that after the 21st of April “citizens would line up to receive up to 25 liters of water per person, with a separate queue for the differently abled. Prior to filling their vessels, each person would be given a dose of hand sanitizer.”

I’m sorry but, what the fuck?!

How the hell did we get this close to what will be the biggest natural disaster of the post-apartheid period and the majority of Cape Townians are carrying on business-as-usual? Only 39% of residents are using less than 87l of water – the previous, and now surpassed, restriction (the current restriction is 50l person). In history, it has never happened that a city the size of Cape Town has run dry. As a Canadian headline announced this week: “Cape Town at risk of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water” (Globe & Mail).

It is clear that there has been an outright failure of leadership in the City of Cape Town. How is it that we have been having a drought for more than 1000 days, with water management experts advising the City on a constant basis and yet only now, with 90 days to go they are escalating things? Patricia De Lille has been the mayor of Cape Town for more than 6 years and the DA has run the Western Cape for more than 7 years. It’s been years in the making. It is beyond clear that the blame for this crisis lies ultimately with the City of Cape Town and their too-little-too-late responses to an imminent catastrophe.

How has the City not already exacted drastic action to ensure that we never reach Day Zero? Why has it taken so long to radically and drastically escalate the issue in the public’s mind? The province’s ‘Resilience Officer’ dealing with the drought is currently on gardening leave because of an internal spat about the MyCiti Bus procurement processes. The media strategy of the City of Cape Town is an absolute disaster. Why has the Province not passed emergency measures in the legislature to require all Western Cape targeted media outlets to devote at least 10% of their prime-time coverage to either public service announcements on the drought or how to reduce water consumption? Why is there no blimp above the CBD announcing “Day Zero: 21 April! REDUCE WATER or taps run dry”? Instead the City pushes its pathetic #ThinkWater message. Who is advising the City on their public relations campaign?! This is about an imminent natural disaster, not a preschool slogan for Water Day. If I can get daily SMSes for insurance I don’t want, or from political parties I won’t vote for, why can’t I get SMSes about what DayZero looks like, where my local water collection point is or some equally-scary information to make me change my behavior?

Tom Eaton points out that in 2018 Mmusi Maimane has tweeted as many times about his child’s first day of school as he has about the largest natural disaster in the post-apartheid period, that is to say, once. Of the 76 tweets in 2018 by @CityofCT (their official Twitter account) less than a quarter have been about water. More than half are inane messages like “Top of the morning to you, Cape Town. With a high of 22, you can expect clouds and sunshine with a windy afternoon.” I don’t want the City to wish me a joyous morning and a jolly good night. I want them to make sure that I have water in my taps.

Why has Helen Zille not called for a localized State of Emergency, which Section 37, 1(a) of the Constitution makes express provision for. That is, that Parliament can declare a State of Emergency in the event of a “natural disaster or other public emergency.” A city of 4-million people running out of water sounds like the definition of a natural disaster to me.

Of the City of Cape Town’s 7 big initiatives to get more water online (V&A, Strandfontein, Monwabisi, Harbour, Cape Flats, Atlantis and Zandvliet), 6 are delayed and behind schedule. The City’s threats of fining excessive users or throttling their water have not materialized. Together with these empty threats and in-fighting within the DA, the City has not managed to get water pricing right or publicly shame non-compliers? Why is there no publicly available list of the top 200 addresses that are openly flouting the City’s restrictions?

It’s also not as if this is the first time this has happened in the world. From 1997 to 2009 Australia faced the Millennium Drought. Melbourne, also a city of four-million people, managed to drastically reduce water consumption by 50% and pre-emptively implement a slew of policies and programs to avoid a humiliating and dystopian scenario of a city running dry. This included setting up an emergency body mandated with decision-making during the drought. It had an expert advisory group with independent experts and full transparency (Google “Low and Grant 2015 Fighting drought with innovation” for an academic overview).

The fact that we are approaching a natural disaster and the majority of Cape Townians are still living their best lives and ignoring the extremely mild reproaches of government means that someone needs to take drastic action. Whether that is the Premier, the Mayor or the President remains to be seen. Whoever takes up that mantle needs to step into the vacuum that has been left by a wave of incompetence and denialism. Call an emergency lekgotla with all the MECs, the top 50 CEOs, the vice-chancellors of universities, editors of newspapers, the heads of civil society etc.  Pass legislation that needs to be passed, take out full-page ads in every newspaper every day. How is this not the single most important thing happening in our province at the moment?!

This is not about the ineptitude of some dingy Department of Water official failing to plan properly but about politicians and bureaucrats doing too little too late. The scale of this crisis is such that, if unresolved, it could cripple the City. A fall in tourism, a loss of jobs, declines in property prices, widespread sanitary diseases. That sounds quite dystopian, but that’s what happens when the taps run dry. The DA and the City of Cape Town need to accept that they should have escalated this issue far sooner, and then begin a massive escalation initiative to hit the complacent middle-class with real consequences. The time for kumbaya messages is over.

*Note, DM made a few edits and I chose to keep my original wording 🙂 

My Sunday Times article on Matric 2017


(This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 14th of January 2018).

The real matric pass rate and the real site of failure in education

Every year the matric results come out and the whole country goes ballistic. Matric is on the front page of every newspaper and swamping the radio waves and TV stations of our country. And suddenly everyone has an opinion about what’s going on in education. “The Free State is the best province”, “We should ban the IEB and have one exam”, “The rising pass rate shows our interventions are working”. No. No. No. None of this is true. Firstly, the rising pass rate – from 73% in 2016 to 75% in 2017 is purely a function of more students being held back and dropping out. In 2017 there were only 401,435 passes compared to 442,672 in 2016 – that’s a 9% decline in one year. So why were there 40,000 fewer matric passes? It’s not because the population dropped by 9% in one year (it did go down but only by about 4%). It’s not because more candidates moved to writing their matric part-time (and therefore aren’t included in the ‘official’ pass rate); there were only 11,462 additional part-timers in 2017 compared to 2016. And it’s definitely not because there are fewer progressed learners (there were 108,742 in 2016 and 107,430 in 2017, basically the same). So we know it’s not the cohort, it’s not part-timers, and it’s not progressed learners, so what is it? Basically more kids are dropping out or being held back than in 2016. It’s also no surprise that the only provinces with increasing matric pass rates (Eastern Cape +6%, Limpopo +3% and KwaZulu-Natal +6%) were also the provinces with the largest declines in the numbers writing matric (-18%, -18% and -16% respectively). So the high-level take-home is that the more you ‘cull’ and ‘gate-keep’ the more your matric pass rate increases. It also means we have 5% fewer Mathematics and 10% fewer Physical Science passes in 2017 compared to 2016.

So what is the ‘real’ matric pass-rate. A lot of people have been asking this question, including myself, and it turns out it’s a little more complicated than one thinks. Occasionally we calculate ‘throughput pass rates’ (matric passes divided by grade 10 enrolments 2 years earlier or Grade 2 enrolments 10 years earlier), yielding figures around 39% for the 2017 Grade 10 throughput pass rate. This is the incorrect figure. The problem is that at least 20% of Grade 10 enrolments are actually ‘repeaters’ and not part of the original cohort. There are also the complications of those writing supplementary exams, getting part-time passes, or Independent schools writing the NSC exams. The most authoritative research done on this is by one of my colleagues at Stellenbosch University, Dr Martin Gustafsson, and according to his calculations the ‘true’ matric pass rate is about 55% and the province with the highest achievement is Gauteng. I believe that. While this is not as bad as the crude and incorrect figure of 39%, it is also not as high as the crude and incorrect figure of 75%. If one adds in youth who get some kind of non-matric qualification (i.e. through a technical or vocational college) the figure rises marginally to about 57%. So, 43% of youth in South Africa still get no qualification whatsoever. Not matric, not TVET, not university. Nothing. They enter the labour-market ill-prepared and inherit lives of chronic poverty and sustained unemployment. Is it any wonder that since 2002 more than 40% of 18-24 year olds in South Africa are ‘NEET’; Not-Employed-or-in-Education-or-Training?

So where do the wheels come off in the education system? The answer is long before matric. When children don’t learn to read for meaning in Grades 1-3 they fall further and further behind the curriculum even as they are promoted into higher grades.  Last month the 2016 Progress in International Reading and Literacy (PIRLS) results were announced and they showed that 78% of South African Grade 4 children could not read for meaning in any language (all 11 languages were tested). And if children don’t grasp the number concept, place-value or the four operations by the time they hit Grade 4 they are on a one-way ticket to failure. The 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that 61% of Grade 5 students could not do basic mathematics.

I know that for those writing and passing matric it is a momentous and important occasion. It’s the culmination of our schooling cycle and (unfortunately) a rite of passage into middle class life (note: necessary but not sufficient for said passage). But as a country I feel like we need to take active steps to de-emphasize the matric results and instead focus on the ailing primary school system, the ugly step-child in our national saga. We don’t even have national assessments in primary school anymore. If the wheels come off by Grade 4 then that’s where we need to be intervening. Prevention is better than cure. A stitch in time saves nine. A matric obsessed country misprioritizes its political and economic resources.


The DBE’s 2017 NSC Exam Report can be found here.


Explaining the matric results in 7 GIFs

*11pm 5/01/18: New addendum added. Note that the throughput pass rates or comparison rates discussed here are not the ‘real’ pass rate. It is not 37% but about 55% (the former is a crude approximation and underestimates the true pass rate by about 15-18 percentage points primarily because the denominator has repeaters) See Martin Gustafsson’s comment at the end of the post. 

worked up

Every year the matric results come out and the whole country goes ballistic. Front pages of the newspapers, every radio, every TV station. And suddenly everyone has an opinion about what’s going on. All the people. so. many. opinions. “The Free State is the best province”, “We should ban the IEB and have one exam”, “The rising pass rate shows our interventions are working”. No. No. No.



  I was determined that this year I was going to stay out of the #MatricResults2017 morass and instead focus on our program to teach Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading, because 78% of kids in SA can’t read. But no one seems to be reading the 97-page 2017 NSC Examination Report which has loads of information. Spend an hour or two analysing the data and it’s pretty easy to see what the trends are and what’s going on. So here are some of my take home points:

(1) The matric pass rate is one (very incomplete) measure of the education system and it’s a bad idea to focus on it in isolation.

got any other bad ideas (stark)

The matric pass rate is calculated as the numbers passing divided by the numbers writing. It can go up if either the numerator goes up or the denominator goes down (or both).  Nick Taylor argued this in 2011 and I’ve discussed this in 2015 and 2016. The gist of it is that it’s possible to artificially raise the matric pass rate by letting fewer weaker students write the exam (in SA this is referred to as culling or gate-keeping). So to get around this we calculate a ‘throughput pass rate’ where we divide the total number of passes by the Gr10 enrolment two years earlier or by the Grade 2 enrolment 10 years earlier. This is a VERY crude measure and does not take into account grade repetition in Gr2 and Gr10, migration, mortality etc (see Martin Gustafsson’s comment at the end of this post for a fuller discussion). So what do the trends look like in the “Traditional” matric pass rate and the “Throughput comparison rate? Basically, while the traditional pass rate has been rising the Gr10 throughput comparison rate has been declining for three years now and the Gr2 throughput comparison rate has been declining for two years. Note the ‘real’ matric pass rate is closer to 55% not 75%, but also not as low as 37%. Basically the ‘real’ pass rate is 15-18 percentage points higher than these crude estimates once you take into account repeaters and some other factors (again, see Martin’s comment at the end).

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(2) The provinces with the largest increases in matric pass rate have the largest declines in numbers writing matric

ram and cow

Basically what happens is that provinces (via principals and teachers) let fewer students reach and write matric (usually the weaker ones) which artificially lowers their denominator and raises their traditional pass rate. So the three provinces that have higher pass rates in 2017 compared to 2016 (EC, LP and KZN) also had the largest declines in the number of Gr12s writing matric between 2016 and 2017.

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(3) The Free State is NOT the best performing province in the country. Some people think that. They are wrong. 

entitled to your wrong opinion

As mentioned in point (1) above, the traditional pass rate can be very misleading. This is especially the case with the Free State. While it has the highest traditional pass rate (86%), it also has the largest decline in Gr10 throughput comparison rate between 2016 and 2017 (from 43% to 36%). What does that mean? Basically that the change between 2016 and 2017 for the Free State seems to be driven by the fact that they are letting fewer of their (weaker) Gr10’s reach matric in the first place.

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If one looks at the Grade 2 throughput comparison rate then Limpopo and the Northern Cape seem to doing quite a bit worse than they were in 2016.

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(4) So if we use the throughput pass rate who does better, the Western Cape or Gauteng?


For those who follow education statistics it’s pretty clear that the WC and GP are always the top two provinces in the country. Sometimes it’s WC (PIRLS Literacy 2016, TIMSS-N 2015), sometimes it’s GP (TIMSS-Gr9 2015). So if the Free State suddenly pops up as number 1 you’ve got to look into the data a little. And what do we find? Surprise, surprise, if you use either the Gr2 throughput comparison rate or the Gr10 throughput comparison rate then the FS is fifth. And who’s first? Gauteng and the Western Cape, kind of both. You see if you take the Gr2 throughput comparison rate then it’s GP but if you take the Gr10 throughput comparison rate then it’s WC. You usually see GP ahead if you use Gr8 throughput as well. The reason is usually because the dropout that does occur in the WC usually happens before Gr10 so their Gr10 numbers are artificially low.

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But you might then ask: why not just use the Grade 2 throughput rate instead because it’s more reflective of the whole education system? Well, it’s mainly because there is likely some inter-provincial migration between Grade 2 and Grade 12 and this is most likely from poorer provinces towards WC and GP. So the WC and GP throughput comparison rates are always slightly inflated, and the Gr2 throughput rate is the most inflated.

(5) There are other things to focus on instead of the matric pass rate

I know that for those writing and passing matric it’s a momentous and important occasion. It’s the culmination of our schooling cycle and (unfortunately for some) a rite of passage into middle class life (note: necessary but not sufficient for said passage). But as a country I feel like we need to take active steps to de-emphasise the matric results and instead focus on the ailing primary school system that seems to drop off the radar after a week of new results being released. 78% of our Grade 4 kids cannot read for meaning in any language. 66% of our Grade 9’s can’t do basic maths or basic science. Perhaps because 79% of our Grade 6 maths teachers can’t pass Grade 6 maths tests? We need to get back to basics and ensure that every child learns to read for meaning and understand the concepts of number and numeracy. If the wheels come off by Grade 4 then that’s where we need to be intervening. Prevention is better than cure. A stitch in time saves nine. A matric obsessed country misprioritizes its resources.

Transmission ends.

convo over

Addendum: Important comment from the ever-wise Martin Gustafsson (I agree with all of his points here, including that the ‘real’ matric pass rate is best estimated as 55%.

“Nic, whilst I absolutely agree with the thrust of this, I don’t agree with the 37 to 39% figure. The problem with dividing Grade 12 passes with Grade 2 enrolment 10 years ago is that there are many repeaters in Grade 2. We have relatively good data for recent years pointing to around 10% of Grade 2 learners being repeaters. We don’t know with certainty what the situation was in 2007, but the figure then was probably higher. Counting NON-repeaters only in your denominator would give you a better idea of who should proceed to Grade 12. But there are other issues: mortality, migration (e.g. across provinces if you want to look at provincial ratios), enrolment in TVET colleges, supplementary examination results, part-time Matriculants, IEB. Once you take all of this into account you get around 55%, not the 37 to 39% you refer to. The DBE has published the calculations (done by me) behind the 55%. It’s at

PS: for those who want to review the numbers and do their own calculations the Excel file and references for all the stats are available here