SA data shows large and unexpected increase in births around 2004

This article originally appeared on the Business Day website as a partially edited version, which can be found here. For the original article, please read below.

By Martin Gustafsson

It is clear that something remarkable happened to South Africa’s births around 2004. What led to this discovery reveals important improvements to ways social data have become available in South Africa.

Starting in 2011, education analysts started noticing sharp increases in the number of children entering primary school, after at least five years of steady declines. Between 2010 and 2013, Grade 1 enrolments rose by 13%, or just over 100 000 children. These figures refer to all schools, whether public or independent. The wave moved its way up the primary grades, reaching Grade 7, the last primary grade, in the current year, 2017. Class sizes increased, resources became a little more stretched.

The increases confounded planners. Concerns were raised about the possibility that schools and provinces were creating ‘ghost learners’ to attract more funding. But why would this happen across virtually the entire country at the same time?

Had there not been a second, and completely separate data source to confirm what was seen in the enrolment data, we may still have been debating whether the enrolment trends were real or not.

The second data source was the Home Affairs birth registrations data, which had recently become available to researchers through the DataFirst web portal hosted by the University of Cape Town.

The Home Affairs data revealed a surge in births, starting in 2004, which corresponded very closely with the subsequent rise in enrolments seen in schools. This can be seen in the following graph, which uses only publicly available data. These patterns are confirmed by the age-specific enrolment data of the Department of Basic Education, nonpublic data which analysts in the Department have been looking at. In the graph, Grade 1 enrolment in 2012 is assumed to represent births in 2005, and so on for the other birth cohorts.

births and enrolments

Importantly, births declined in 2009, but did not return to their pre-2004 levels. The fact that the Grade 1 curve in the graph is on average 16% higher than the births curve is attributable to grade repetition, which means that a proportion of children remain in Grade 1 for more than year. This proportion has remained fairly stable in recent years. The important thing is that the two curves display the same shape.

The surge in births was remarkably widespread across the country. All provinces were affected to some extent, though most affected were Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The map provides details at the district municipality level (administrative units available in the Home Affairs data).

birth registrations 2003 to 2006

The approximately 15% increase in births between 2003 and 2006 is remarkable by international standards. Only a couple of countries have seen comparable increases. For instance, Ukraine did in the early 2000s following government efforts to boost an exceptionally low birth rate.

Are our increases in the number of children reflected in the official mid-year population estimates of Statistics South Africa? Yes and no. Historical figures published with the mid-year estimates some years ago, for instance 2013, offered no hint that there had been a surge in births around 2004. However, the most recent Stats SA estimates do point to increases, but of only around half the size seen in the enrolments and birth registrations data. Stats SA’s 2016 estimates of past fertility rates reflect, for the first time, a rise and fall in births, with a peak in 2008 (as in the above graph).

One could say there has been a lag of as long as a decade between a major demographic phenomenon and its registration in the official population data, and even then it seems only partially reflected. By developing country standards, this is not unusual. This situation could be improved, in part if demographers and education planners compared notes more frequently. This kind of comparison hardly ever occurs, despite the fact that school systems tend to collect data on child populations with much greater frequency than national statistical agencies. A part of the problem is that pressure to standardise population estimation methods across countries, in line with the prescripts of UN bodies, can detract from the monitoring of local peculiarities and shocks.

The reasons behind the increase in births is not completely clear, but is being investigated. The patterns in the data suggest that the child support grant was not a major contributing factor. Nor does immigration into the country explain the phenomenon. Instead, it seems as if greater access to anti-retroviral treatment, and the associated reduction in the risk of mother-to-child transmission, brought about a sharp increase in planned pregnancies. However, conclusive evidence on causes is still to come.

Analysis of the kind just described has become increasingly possible, for researchers and students, in part thanks to the greater accessibility of data. In particular, the availability of multiple sources allows for important comparisons and verifications to occur. The United Nations Data Revolution Group refers to data as ‘the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability’. Whilst data on its own cannot resolve the range of policy conundrums we face in South Africa, it can be hugely beneficial in bringing about a more informed debate. However, capacity to use data, in particular microdata (or ‘raw data’) in government, our think-tanks and university departments is weaker than it should be, given the complexity of the policy challenges we face, and the data that are available, and will increasingly become available.

RESEP launches its synthesis report entitled “A Society Divided: How Unequal Education Quality Limits Social Mobility in South Africa”

On Friday, 24 March 2017, RESEP launched its synthesis report entitled “A Society Divided: How Unequal Education Quality Limits Social Mobility in South Africa”. The research project was headed up by Prof Servaas van der Berg and the report incorporates the research of about 20 authors. The central focus of the report is the role of education in promoting social mobility for the poor in the highly unequal South African economic landscape. The investigation is of particular relevance in a country where the rapid expansion of educational attainment since the 1970s has not produced the desired labour market outcomes for many South Africans, for the most part perpetuating patterns of poverty and inequality along the apartheid dimensions of race and geography.

Given the deep structural nature of inequality in South Africa, this report employs a conceptual framework (shown Figure E1) to illustrate how differences in education quality offered to South African learners are at the root of income inequality that persists two decades into democracy. The grim labour market prospects facing South Africa’s young adults are in large part attributable to an education system that still manages to produce vastly different education outcomes that favour a small elite in the wealthy part of that system and disadvantage mainly black and coloured learners in the less affluent part of the system.

A small minority of learners attend functional, high quality (mostly former white) schools, staffed by qualified teachers and characterised by good management, assessment and parental involvement. Learners graduating from these schools have relatively good chances of entering the upper end of the labour market, often (but not always) first acquiring some form of tertiary education. The high productivity jobs in this part of the labour market offer high returns. Traditionally this part of the labour market has been dominated by whites, but the removal of apartheid era restrictions, government interventions (such as black economic empowerment and affirmative action) and improved access to better quality education for some black children have allowed a relatively small black minority to achieve upward social mobility through the labour market.

In contrast, the majority of South Africa’s (mostly black) learners attend formerly black schools. These schools, that often also suffer from poor management, little parental participation and poor assessment, produce poor cognitive outcomes, which are poorly rewarded in the labour market, resulting in low employment probabilities and low wages from unskilled occupations. While the transition from low quality schools to low productivity jobs is relatively deterministic, it is possible for individuals from this part of the education system to access the high productivity part of the labour market through vocational training, affirmative action or other forms of labour market mobility.

This conceptual framework is used throughout the report to discuss how education, and particularly education quality, are critical inputs in advancing social mobility for South Africa’s economically vulnerable citizens.

Main findings

  • Performance on international and national standardised tests show that while educational attainment has converged dramatically over time between races, poor schools still lag far behind their affluent counterparts in learning outcomes. By Grade 9, learners in poor (mostly black) schools, have a backlog of about 3½ years relative to their rich school counterparts.
  • Substantial learning gaps between learners in different schools can be observed as early as the middle primary school years, making a strong case for decisive early interventions. As early as Grade 4, fewer than 30% of learners in the poorest 40 percent of schools are performing above international low learning benchmarks.
  • Education is an important predictor of labour market outcomes, with education beyond matric improving prospects both for employment and higher salaries. In 2007 the wage per hour of someone who had achieved a degree was three times as large as for someone who had achieved only a matriculation.
  • New evidence suggests that school education quality is also strongly positively associated with future earnings. Therefore, learners who attend poor quality schools generally earn substantially less than those who attend good quality schools, even when they have the same education levels.
  • The consequences of unequal education opportunities are particularly dire for many of South Africa’s black youth, who despite having more education than previous generations and no longer facing discriminatory labour market legislation, have no better employment probabilities than older labour market participants. Thus, despite more education, young black South Africans are less optimistic about their future.

Thus far, the report has featured in the Mail & Guardian as well as in News24.

The report can be downloaded in PDF format, here.

ReSEP report on flows from matric to, and through, university enriching debate around student fees

Recent research looking at “higher education access and outcomes for the 2008 national matric cohort”, by Hendrik van Broekhuizen, Servaas van der Berg and Heleen Hofmeyr of Stellenbosch University are colouring the debate around student fees in South Africa with in-depth analysis that are attracting welcome interest.

The Mercury recently reported on the findings of the research outputs of the ReSEP authors, and highlighted the much more pervasive extent of the challenges in resolving the student fees crisis.

Looking at matric exam data from 2008 to 2013, data from South African universities from 2009 to 2014, data from the Educational Management Information System master-list and data from the 2011 national census, the authors conducted an investigation of university access in South Africa.

Their findings included that, for those who started school, only:

  • 60% wrote matric.
  • 37% passed matric.
  • 12% gained access to university within six years of finishing school.
  • 6% completed an undergraduate qualification within six years of finishing school.
  • 4% completed a degree within six years of finishing school.

To read the full story and what underlying factors are contributing to the challenges of basic education in South Africa to contribute to the resolution of the student fees crisis, please click here to go to the IOL website, and read the original article as published in The Mercury.

Prominent media coverage of ‘Binding Constraints’ and ‘Laying Firm Foundations’ reports

The recent ReSEP reports on “Identifying Binding Constraints in Education for the PSPPD (Project to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development) and “Laying Firm Foundations: Getting Reading Right” for the Zenex Foundation have generated widespread media coverage over the last few weeks.

On radio, Gabrielle Wills and Martin Gustafsson were invited for a discussion on SAFM while Servaas van der Berg spoke on RSG and on some local radio stations. The reports were also discussed on TV when Janeli Kotzé and Nompumelelo Mohohlwane appeared on Freek Robinson’s programme, Regstreeks on KykNet.

These reports have featured in at least 12 newspaper articles, amongst others in Mail & Guardian, Die Burger, Beeld, The Mercury, Business Day Live and Times Live. Mail & Guardian even devoted an editorial to our findings. You can read some of the articles below:

The reports also caught the attention of Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who requested ReSEP to present to the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC), which he chairs.

On 10 June, Servaas van der Berg presented the highlighted key findings of both the reports to the HRDC in Johannesburg. His key message articulated the considerable reading deficits of children across the country and the relevance of a binding constraints framework for addressing issues of basic service delivery in education.

He also drew attention to concrete suggestions for addressing the reading crisis in the reports. The six key policy recommendations stressed at the end of his presentation included:

  • Emphasizing reading as a unifying goal for primary schooling
  • Continuing to test students regularly through reformulated ANAs as a measure of learning outcomes in primary schools
  • Using DBE workbooks to measure curriculum coverage
  • Teaching primary school teachers how to teach reading in African languages and in English 
  • Prioritizing the elimination of extreme class sizes in the Foundation Phase
  • Giving more attention to reading in African languages. 

It is satisfying to see our hard work coming to fruition. We hope that ReSEP’s research will have a lasting effect on policy debates and developments to the benefit of all South African children.

 

New ESRC/DFID Research Project: Outlier Township & Rural Schools in South Africa

At RESEP we are excited to announce our latest research initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in conjunction with the Department for International Development (DFID). As part of the “Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme” our proposal was one of eight international projects to be funded in 2015.

The focus of the research initiative is to better understand how some schools in challenging contexts manage to succeed against the considerable odds that they are up against. For this project we will be collaborating with our long-term colleagues Nick Taylor (JET), Ursula Hoadley (UCT) and Jaamia Galant (UCT). From the RESEP side Nic Spaull will be leading the project together with Servaas van der Berg and Gabrielle Wills.

From our earlier research and collaborations with qualitative researchers we have seen that there are considerable benefits when combining different approaches, and specifically the analysis of large scale datasets in conjunction with in-depth qualitative research. In this project we will be focussing on 60 primary schools in three provinces, namely, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo. The study takes the form of a matched-pair analysis where in each province we will select 10 outlier schools from rural areas and/or townships, and each exceptional school will be matched to a neighbouring school that is performing typically for that area.

By selecting schools that are serving the same community, that typically have the same government resources and district support, we hope to better understand which school factors lead to success in these contexts and whether they are common or different across the three provinces. We are especially interested in the School Leadership and Management (SLM) dynamics associated with high functioning schools. To that end we will also be developing a new SLM instrument to better capture the SLM practices in these schools. Almost all the surveys that have been developed to measure SLM come from places like the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. It is perhaps unsurprising that these instruments aren’t well suited to a developing country like South Africa, or many other African countries.

We aim to answer the following questions:

1. What practices and behaviours of school leadership and management practices contribute to high student achievement of schools in challenging contexts (specifically townships and rural areas)?

2. How do we measure and codify these practices?

Our research project involves not only in-depth qualitative interviews and observation, but also gathering information on student achievement. We want to understand to what extent SLM practices are correlated with student outcomes in these schools and which of the various measures of SLM are the most closely associated with achievement.

We have already begun our initial research processes of gathering the team and charting the course ahead. We are currently in discussions with the national and provincial education systems and actively recruiting fieldworker researchers for our initial school visits later in the year.

If you are an honours or a masters student and are fluent in at least one African language (this is a non-negotiable  prerequisite) please email mschreve@sun.ac.za with your CV and a covering letter.