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Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. WP02/2022

Authors: Martin Gustafsson & Stephen Taylor


Three international testing programmes, including PIRLS, point to educational quality improvements in South Africa during the period 2002 to 2019. The gains were substantial, relative to the steepness of improvements seen in other countries. What lay behind these trends? National education quality trends are not easy to explain, and this is seldom attempted in a systematic manner. This is in part because there is little guidance on the optimal methods to follow, methods which must inevitably employ a mix of statistical and non-statistical approaches. This paper offers a brief historical account of major policy and implementation shifts in South Africa’s schooling sector, with a focus on the primary level, the level tested by PIRLS. A statistical analysis then employs an Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition, using the PIRLS 2011 and 2016 data in an attempt to identify factors that explain the improvement in reading scores between the two surveys. While this technique adds value to the analysis, there are serious limitations relating to missing values in the background questionnaire data and the fact that these questionnaires are international, and thus do not capture many local policy specificities. When viewed jointly, the historical account and statistical analysis point to improvements in the home background circumstances of learners, including more educated adults and increased access to digital technologies, playing an important role. Certain policy interventions are likely to have played an important role: a large expansion of participation in pre-school education; an increased focus on learning outcomes prompted in part by standardised national assessments; improved initial teacher education; increased provision and use of books in classrooms; and curriculum reforms.


JEL Classification: B50, C21, I21

Keywords: PIRLS, educational improvement, Oaxaca-Blinder, South Africa