NIC SPAULL: SA education is not the worst in the world
A lot needs to be improved, but putting the system at the bottom of the class is misleading
Is SA’s schooling system the “worst in the world”? Earlier in 2023 the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) released a series of reports claiming that it was. It argued that “we are either last or in the bottom three countries” and that we have “one of the worst-performing education systems in the world.” This is simply not true.
There are 193 countries in the world and SA — to its credit — is one of the few that chooses to participate in global assessments such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls grade 4) or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS grade 5 and 9). The CDE report was quick to claim that we came “last” but slow to acknowledge that only 40 countries wrote the test and only 13 were middle-income countries.
So, of the 193 countries of the world, only 20% wrote the Pirls test, with 150-odd countries not participating. It is true that we perform worse than some poorer African countries such as Kenya, Mauritius and the Seychelles, but 75% of African countries do not participate in that assessment (Seacmeq: the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality), and judging by other education data, SA would almost certainly perform better than most of these, as it should.
We love to compare SA to Kenya or Zimbabwe, lamenting how bad our education system is compared to theirs. But we need some perspective.
In 2018 less than 10% of Zimbabwean children completed high school, with about 40% in Kenya and 50% in SA. By 2022 that figure was 62% in SA. We won’t talk about the Seychelles because it has only 100,000 people. That is the population of Kroonstad. When it comes to higher education there is no contest, with the top five universities on the continent all in SA (the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Pretoria).
A lot of people rightly point to the superficiality of rankings. So how have we done historically on the most important indicator — learning outcomes?
The Human Sciences Research Council has shown that SA’s improvement in maths and science at grade 9 level between 2003 and 2015 was the largest of all participating countries in TIMSS over that period. Similarly in reading, between 2011 and 2016 SA was the fastest improver among Pirls countries, with similar gains in Sacmeq.
Of course, SA is starting from a low base, yet this is nevertheless an impressive achievement. For a decade we were one of the fastest-improving countries among those who measure their systems. The pandemic was a major setback for this trajectory of improvement, and the losses cannot be overstated. Without targeted catch-up interventions to remediate these learning losses, we will see a “lost generation”.’
Most South Africans also do not know that we have the second-most comprehensive school feeding system in the world. Only Brazil feeds a higher proportion of its schoolchildren. Every weekday 9-million children in SA receive a free meal at school. This achievement is notwithstanding the KwaZulu-Natal school feeding scandal earlier in 2023.
This lasted for less than one month. At the start of the school term on 12 April 2023 it was clear there was a problem, with widespread media coverage and public outrage. Before the end of April the problem was resolved and the dodgy tender was terminated. Of course, it would have been better had there been no lapse in the first place, but this looks a lot like working institutions in a functioning democracy.
It is important to highlight that when the government sets its mind to something — as the minister did with universalising free learner Workbooks or free school meals — it can successfully implement bold programmes that reach into every school and improve learning outcomes. When 50% of children in no-fee schools do not know the letters of the alphabet by the end of grade 1, and 81% of grade 4s cannot read for meaning in any language, it’s clear to me that we need a laser focus on reading in the early grades.
Pretending there is nothing good to work from in SA leads to energy-sapping despair. Yes, we are far below where we should be given our level of economic development and spending on education. We also perform worse than many comparator countries, yet claims that we are the “worst in the world” are misleading, incorrect and unhelpful.
• Nic Spaull is an associate professor of economics at Stellenbosch University
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.