Grade RR: Priority or Pie in the Sky?

Children play beneath illegally connected electrical wires in Kliptown, Soweto. November 19, 2014. Photo: REUTERS, Siphiwe Sibeko

The education crisis has many proposed solutions, but new evidence points to the problem that our best bet – catching the problem early – might be a practically unattainable goal.

The Daily Maverick reports that findings from reports and research conducted on the feasibility of a high-quality early learning programme roll-out that could drastically improve the South African education problem, are not encouraging, both for now and in the future.

The research indicates that despite the enormous benefit to pursuing high-quality pre-school education programmes, South Africa cannot ensure the necessary quality of such a strategy for it to be meaningful, and new reports add that the quality cannot be bettered without drastic changes.

Without the widespread availability of the proper tools to measure the quality of ECD programmes, the feasibility of any new early learning programmes of meaningful quality will remain dubious.

To read the full article on The Daily Maverick, please click here.

Improving the school principal appointment process is a national priority

The education sector is in the spotlight this week with the release of an interim investigation report into corruption in the appointment process for educators and principals in South African schools. The investigation, headed up by Professor John Volmink, was initiated after allegations of high levels of nepotism in the appointment process, as well as the sale of posts for cash – with ensuing violent crimes – that have been linked to principal appointments in the past year.

The interim report confirms that there has been widespread manipulation and corruption and arrests are imminent. The gravity of the findings have been acknowledged by the National Department of Education as they note weaknesses in the system and the need to freeze new appointments  until improvements to the process have been implemented (see media report).

While extremely sobering, the investigation’s findings are a move in the right direction to eliminating corruption in education. But the findings are also very timeous as the country faces a rising and increasing number of principal replacements, as identified in new research by Gabrielle Wills.

With a rapid increase in the average age of school principals and around 24 000 public schools, South Africa is likely to require at least 1 000 principal replacements per year for the next decade just to replace retiring principals. The opening of these large numbers of vacant school leadership posts raises the urgency to eliminate corruption in appointments and to improve weak national policy leading to bad appointments, while the opportunity exists.

This is particularly important in a context where the average tenure of principals is long (almost ten years) and they face little threat to job-security, especially in provinces with strong SADTU representation. Wills identifies that, on average, less than 1 in a 1 000 principals were dismissed in South Africa in 2011.

Nationally, processes and short-listing criteria governing appointments require that to apply for a principal post, a candidate must possess at least 7 years of teaching experience and a Relative Educational Qualifications Value (REQV) of 14. But rough calculations suggest that about 87% of all educators (excluding principals) meet these requirements, as is. The existing national criteria, therefore, provide little to no value in sifting out weaker candidates.

Even in the absence of corruption, highly unsuitable principals may be appointed despite following ‘due process’. Yet raising qualification criteria is not the answer to improving the appointment process.  Consistent with international research, Wills finds that in the majority of South African schools, principals’ years of service and REQV level ranking have little observable relationship with student performance in the school’s they lead, but are correlated with remuneration scales.

The National Development Plan does address this issue, recommending the introduction of competency-based testing in the appointment process for principals in efforts to improve the calibre of school leadership. It also recommends the introduction of performance contracts which, if implemented successfully, would require higher levels of effort from school leaders and provide substantiation for dismissing under-performers.

Wills’ research finds strong support for both recommendations. Competency-based testing may assist in identifying better quality candidates and where managed by an independent third party may limit the influence that union members and corrupt stakeholders have on the appointment process.


A published version of Wills’ research on the principal labour market can be accessed through the South African Journal of Childhood Education, here.

Research by ReSEP’s Dr Nic Spaull Featured Prominently in 2015 Child Gauge

Earlier this month marked the release of the 2015 Child Gauge focussing on “Youth and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty.’ The work of RESEP researcher Dr Nic Spaull featured prominently in the report and built on earlier work conducted by the broader RESEP team. Dr Spaull wrote the education chapter for the 2015 Gauge, titled Schooling in South Africa: How low-quality education becomes a poverty trap.

ABSTRACT: “The strong legacy of apartheid and the consequent correlation between education and wealth helps drive an intergenerational cycle of poverty where children inherit the social standing of their parents or caregivers, irrespective of their own abilities or effort. This essay provides an overview of educational outcomes in South Africa, and describes the linkages between the education system and the labour market. It illustrates clearly how low-quality education in South Africa is a key mechanism in the reproduction of inequality and proposes policy and programmatic interventions to alleviate the situation”.

The findings from this chapter were influential in the overall direction of the Gauge and can be seen as the main focus of the poster at the back of the Gauge report. All the Gauge articles are available here.

Gustafsson v Friedman: Taking education off the pedestal of economic growth “incomplete”, “misleading”

In a recent letter published on Business Day‘s website, ReSEP researcher and Department of Basic Education adviser Martin Gustafsson, challenges an opinion piece by Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, titled “Education is not the cure-all it is made out to be”.

In light of the ongoing student protests and the state of access to, and quality of, education in South Africa, Friedman’s original opinion piece had drawn from the work of Ricardo Hausmann, former Venezuelan cabinet minister and academic economist.

Friedman writes: “[Hausmann’s] numbers show that huge growth in education levels over the past 50 years have not translated into equivalent growth in the economy. [He] pointed out that China’s educational progress lags behind that of Tunisia, Mexico, Kenya and Iran — yet it grew much faster than any of them.”

Gustafsson is quick to point out that Hausmann and Friedman’s argument provides a misleading and incomplete view of the total body of research in this field.

“Yes, there was considerable disagreement around the education-growth link when we still relied on educational participation as an indicator of investment in education. But since about 2005, the use of educational-quality indicators, drawing from test data, have made the link clearer and far less disputable. In fact, over the longer term, education tends to emerge as the most powerful single factor promoting growth,” Gustafsson writes.

But Friedman also argues in his piece that the near ubiquitous notion that education is the central problem facing slowly developing and unequal economies, can have drawbacks.

“This is why harping on education can hold us back — by diverting our attention from other problems that need attention. A frequent problem is that the education argument becomes a handy excuse for those who are doing well and do not want anything to change… [This type of argument] places all the blame on people at the bottom and requires no change at all from those at the top. Like the claim that voters need “education” whenever they behave in a way that elites dislike, this is more about making people at the top feel better than about solving problems.”

However, Gustafsson points out that Hausmann’s own article faces wanting scrutiny in its lack of reasonable time dimensions in evaluating time-dependent variables such as education.

“The idea that there should be a worrying education myth within the growth discourse is itself a myth, it would seem, and is an unnecessary distraction,” he concludes.


To access the original articles that form this debate, please follow these links in chronological order: Hausmann; Friedman; Gustafsson

To learn more about Martin Gustafsson and his role with the ReSEP group, please click here.

Rampant illiteracy in primary schools across home languages and English

More than two thirds of Grade 5 English Second Language (ESL) students from a sample of 4667 learners could not pass a simple English comprehension test with more than 30%, a study has found. The vast majority of these students could also not read for meaning by the end of grade 4 – even in their home language.

The findings of a recent study by Kim Draper and Nic Spaull, from the Centre for Development and Enterprise and the Stellenbosch University Department of Economics, respectively, finds crisis-level illiteracy rates in primary school learners of South African schools.

They find that almost a third of students will still be functionally illiterate by the time they reach grade 6. Draper and Spaull focused their study on an understanding of oral reading fluency (ORF) of Grade 5 ESL learners in rural South Africa.

ORF is an essential component of competent reading, and is the speed at which written text is reproduced into spoken language. This translates into the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with meaningful expression and is correlated with comprehension and understanding meaning in texts.

Draper and Spaull used data from a non-random sample of 4667 Grade 5 learners in 214 rural schools across all nine provinces of South Africa. The sample is still seen as representative in that the results would be positively biased, if at all.

Of the sample, only 1772 students completed the ORF Test 1 from which insights are gained. Of these students 41% were reading at less than 40 words read correctly per minute (WCPM). This translated into 88% of them achieving less than 20% on the silent reading comprehension test that followed.

The international literature points to a threshold of 40 WCPM as being the absolute lower-bound threshold, below which children do not understand what they are reading at all. International benchmarks, however, see South African learners’ ORF rate comparable to US Grade 2 ESL learners currently.

Due to a lack of contextual relevance across international standards, the authors suggest that through a series of adaptations to current models that take into account uniquely South African factors, a more attainable and appropriate benchmark for Grade 5 ESL learners would be 90-100 WCPM. Currently these results are only being attained by 9% of the sample.

The authors point to a need for drastic policy intervention to see that the single most important goal for the first half of primary school tuition should become the solid acquisition of reading skills where every child can read fluently in their home language by the end of Grade 3 and read fluently in English by the end of Grade 4 – since English becomes the medium of teaching from Grade 5 onward for the vast majority of learners.

What stands in the way of this is the fact that the majority of primary school teachers do not know how to teach reading in either African languages or English.

To achieve the proposed goals, policy will need a medium- and long-term focus, they suggest, and will need to cater for the clear need to convene a group of literacy experts to develop a course to teach Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading.


To access the research as contained in Working Paper No.9 of the Stellenbosch University Department of Economics , please click here.