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 with your CV and a covering letter.

The uphill battle of establishing accurate performance trends for schools

Dr Martin Gustafsson is based at the Department of Basic Education and is a member of the Research on Socioeconomic Policy group at Stellenbosch University. This article first appeared in the City Press on the 26th of May and is also available here.

The technical report which informs the newspaper article, and which was discussed at a ReSEP workshop on 18 January 2016, is available here.

By Dr Martin Gustafsson

Schools dragging SA down

The South African Institute of Race Relations, in its February 2016 Fast Facts publication, concludes that “schools drag South Africa down” and that pupil performance is declining substantially.

The latter conclusion is based almost entirely on two numbers: the number of Grade 12 pupils obtaining a score of 70% or more in mathematics in 2008, which was 25 027, and the corresponding figure for 2015, 17 452. The two figures point to a decline of around 30%. At first glance, this appears to be a national disaster.

However, analysis done by myself and others in the basic education department, to be published shortly, paints a completely different picture, of large and encouraging improvements in mathematics in Grade 12. Many of the challenges facing the schooling system are accurately described by the institute’s report, but I disagree completely that the numbers should be pointing to a deterioration.

The problem is, first, that the institute looked selectively at the numbers, and ignored important figures, including a few appearing in their own report. This seems irresponsible.

Second, analysing pupil performance trends is exceedingly complex, not just in South Africa. The British education analyst John Jerrim has written extensively about how the data on mathematics trends have been spectacularly misinterpreted in his country. In South Africa, the complexities are particularly daunting in the case of Grade 12 mathematics.

So what did the institute’s analysts get wrong? They failed to point out that all of the 30% decline they refer to happened between 2008 and 2009. From 2009 to 2015, the trend, using values from all years (as one should), is a weakly positive 2% overall. The number of passes at the 70% level in 2008 was exceptionally high relative to all other years, something which should make any analyst suspicious.

The institute’s analysts also fail to point out that the overall increase in the number of physical science passes at the 70% level, over the entire 2008 to 2015 period, was a whopping 85%. In contrast to mathematics, what appears suspicious here is at least one exceptionally low value at the start of the period, in 2009. The question is why two such closely related subjects would move in completely opposing directions.

Another suspicious trend discussed in the analysis to be released by the basic education department is that the percentage of white and Indian pupils achieving high marks in mathematics has declined markedly over the 2008 to 2015 period. There appears to be no plausible explanation for this trend among these two relatively advantaged groups.

We zoomed into a sample of particularly stable and well-performing schools, with about 4000 mathematics candidates each year, to find explanations to the apparent anomalies. What emerged clearly is that variations across years in the difficulty of obtaining certain marks, for instance 70% in mathematics, explain most of the anomalies.

Mostly these variations are small, but for certain years they are large. Pupils who obtained 69% in the years 2012 to 2015, when levels of difficulty appeared particularly stable, would have obtained 68% in 2011, a marginally more difficult year, and at least 72% in the years 2008 to 2010. 2008 was a particularly easy year for obtaining high marks.

Changing the criteria for our sample did not change the picture substantially. Over the years, the mathematics examination became more difficult, while for physical science the opposite was true.

So is the problem then poor standardisation in the examinations system? Yes and no. There appears to be scope for improving the comparability of marks across years and this is receiving the attention of the basic education department and the council for quality assurance in general and further education and training, Umalusi.

At the same time, it is technically impossible to achieve anything approaching perfectly comparable marks, at all mark levels, in an examination system such as ours, or in similar systems in other countries. We need to learn to live with some variation over the years and rely on other systems, such as the international testing programmes, for more rigorous assessment of trends.

When we recalibrated results for all pupils over the 2008 to 2015 period, using what we found to be equivalent scores, we found that the number of pupils achieving a 70% level of performance in mathematics increased by 27% overall.

For black African pupils the increase was 61%. Physical science improvements, on the other hand, were found to be smaller than what published statistics would suggest, but were still encouraging. By far the largest improvements were in historically disadvantaged schools and top mathematics performers are spread across more schools in 2015 than they were in 2008.

We do not dispute that the under-performance of schools is a key factor holding the country’s development back. This is made clear in the National Development Plan. However, where we do disagree strongly with the institute for race relations is the direction the schooling system has been taking in recent years.

If the movement has been in the right direction and improvements as large as one might realistically expect, then one could hardly hope for more.

The evidence suggests the quality of school education is improving, that the improvements have been substantial and encouraging, and that they are helping to overcome historical race-based inequalities.

But trends seen in a few other countries, such as Brazil, suggest we should be aiming for an even steeper improvement.

This is what ongoing changes to our interventions, of which there are many, should aim to achieve. We also need a more rigorous national debate, involving a wider range of stakeholders, about the actual performance trends of schools.