Equity & efficiency in South African primary schools: A preliminary analysis of SACMEQ III South Africa

Author(s): Nic Spaull

Author: Nic Spaul
Supivisor: Servaas van der Berg
Institution: Stellenbosch University, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, Department of Economics


The many and varied links between student socioeconomic status and educational outcomes have been well documented in the South African economics of education literature. The strong legacy of apartheid and the consequent correlation between education and wealth have meant that, generally speaking, poorer learners perform worse academically. The links between affluence and educational quality in South Africa can partially explain this outcome since the poor receive a far inferior quality of education when compared to their wealthier counterparts. This disadvantages them in the labourmarket and entrenches their poverty. This thesis uses the recent Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ III) dataset for South Africa to answer three important questions: (1) Is South African primary education efficient? (2) Is South African primary education equitable? and (3) What are the main factors that have a significant effect on student mathematics and reading performance in Grade 6. The thesis shows that a high proportion of the country’s learners are functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate. The research confirms previous findings that socio-economic status, and particularly school socioeconomic status, is important when understanding student success or failure. Other factors which significantly affect student performance are homework frequency, grade repetition, and the availability of reading textbooks. In contrast, teacher-subject knowledge was found to have only a modest impact on Grade 6 performance. Policy interventions associated with the findings are also highlighted. The study concludes that South Africa is still a tale of two school sub-systems: one which is wealthy, functional and able to educate students, while the other is poor, dysfunctional, and unable to equip students with the necessary numeracy and literacy skills they should be acquiring in primary school. Finally, the thesis suggests that there are some options available to policy-makers which are expected to have a positive effect on learner performance.