A GREAT deal of energy is too often spent peddling figures whose veracity is unclear. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Global Competitiveness Report consistently ranks SA’s mathematics and science education quality among the worst in the world, sending the nation into a vortex of ill-informed activism on the state of the education system. The latest report ranks SA 144th out of 144 countries on the quality of maths and science education. Predictably, with the help of our media, we were left fuming for weeks, in spite of the questions that have risen continuously on the survey’s methodology.

SA’s education system has been repeatedly criticised for its outcomes, even with one of the highest enrolment rates in Africa and high education expenditure. The National Planning Commission’s (NPC’s) Diagnostic Report found that "the quality of education for poor black South Africans is substandard". According to the diagnostic, despite a steady increase in literacy since 1994 and an increase in the equity of spending, "literacy and numeracy test scores are low by African and global standards, notwithstanding that government spends about 6% of gross domestic product on education".

However, even if information seems to collaborate respected sources, the robustness of the statistics and numbers we use should always be noteworthy. To reach its conclusion, the WEF surveyed fewer than 50 South African business executives, who were asked: In your country, how would you assess the quality of maths and science education? (1 = extremely poor — among the worst in the world; 7 = excellent —among the best in the world). That rating, which sends the nation into a tailspin, is based purely on the perception executives have of the quality of maths and science education, rather than more scientific forms of data collection, such as standardised testing.

Evidence should be indispensable to public discourse because it should help us to appreciate the options we have based on lessons from actions we have taken before. SA boasts an impressive list of world-class universities and a wealth of credible data collected by research outfits that produce accessible research.

Some of these institutions could do better in ensuring the information that is made available is user-friendly, while others such as Statistics SA have made it a point to ensure information is easily accessible and understandable.

Yet, authoritative information is rarely the basis from which we discuss the paths the country should take in dealing with its challenges. Where evidence contradicts our individual ideological position, we accuse institutions of bias. Granted, the philosophical basis for how evidence is generated matters. However, SA has a long list of institutions that do the best with the resources they have and have constantly improved the quality of their findings.

How we engage as a society matters. As times have become more difficult, economic pressure has put pressure on the resources we have to make meaningful change, while social pressure has put pressure on the amount of time we have to change them. It has become critical to ensure that every decision we make as a society is well considered. The quality of our debates suffers when we hold on to superfluous information that serves only to entrench our idea of how things are, rather than explore how things really work in our society.

To make good decisions, our society must consider a number of inputs, chief among them being good quality evidence. This does not discount the importance of social values, public opinion and constitutional considerations, which help us to define the type of society we want to live in. The steps we take to get to that society should be based on the most accurate insights we have to get us moving forward faster.

• Ndlovu is part of Youth Lab, works at the NPC and writes in her personal capacity.

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