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International study shows where SA’s education system needs more help

The investigation uncovers important indicators of growth in reading performance.
Image: Getty images

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is an international comparative study that’s conducted in five-year cycles. More than 60 countries take part in it. For its part South Africa was included in the 2006, 2011, 2016 and upcoming 2021 cycles.

Nationally representative samples of Grade 4 children are tested for their reading literacy skills. At this crucial age, children should be able to use reading to learn. The foundation of early reading should have been firmly established in the first three years of schooling.

For some time, South Africa’s performance in these tests has been disappointing, showing no improvement. This has raised questions about a number of systemic issues, especially in view of the large percentage of the national budget spent on education.

But a re-analysis of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study trend reports has cast new light on the situation.

As initially reported, there was little improvement in reading literacy between the 2011 and 2016 cycles. Yet, on closer inspection South Africa shows the third steepest improvement among 43 countries, after Morocco and Oman.

The investigation uncovers important indicators of growth in reading performance. But the exact nature of this growth has to be qualified. Without pinpointing where growth has taken place, any interventions or development plans at system level are doomed to be a stab in the dark. And it still won’t be clear why education progress is limited.

Many factors have to be looked at to understand what’s driving improvements – and what’s holding back better improved education outcomes. No factor can be singled out.

More research needs to be done before definitive answers can be pinpointed. But the latest report – published in 2017 – clearly shows that socioeconomic conditions are a major driver of school education achievement in South Africa.

Socioeconomic indicators

It has to be emphasised that the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016 results, as reported in 2017, are an accurate reflection of South African Grade 4 children’s reading literacy achievement nationally. The study’s 2016 results remain unchanged and the evidence of improvement between the 2011 and 2016 cycles remains an issue of a reported trend that was underestimated.

For this reason, the 2016 results can be used to accurately reflect education levels in the country.

So what do they show?

In the 2016 cycle, South African Grade 4 learners yet again achieved the lowest overall scores of 320. Scores are measured against an international average of 500.

The study indicated reading achievement for schools in the 2016 sample by quintile. The quintile system was introduced by South Africa’s Department of Basic Education to ensure equitable distribution of funding to schools most in need.

Quintile 1 schools are the poorest and receive more funding per pupil from the state. Parents don’t pay fees for pupils attending schools in quintiles 1 to 3. Quintiles 4 and 5 are the more affluent schools. Parents pay school fees and government assistance isn’t relied on.

The scores show that children from quintile 1 schools lag behind their counterparts from the higher quintiles. This means that Grade 4 children who attend the poorest schools in South Africa are mostly at an educational disadvantage compared to their more affluent counterparts.

What does this information show us?

Attempts to provide additional help for students from poor households have not yet led to improvements in education outcomes. These children remain disadvantaged.

What needs to be done?

This shows that socio-economic status remains a driver of achievement and the system is still in trouble despite improved trend growth. The national summary reports from the study’s 2006 and 2011 cycles touch on these factors.

The nature of the reported growth should be broken down further into areas of the system that need improvement. Further PIRLS analyses could be done. Delving into the data of achievement in large scale assessments remains the responsibility of education stakeholders and researchers. It’s important to verify international findings and amend them when needed.

Evidence from studies like the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study remains credible, accurate and reliable as indicators of the status quo of a system across time. These should direct teacher training initiatives, interventions and development planning.

It should also, hopefully, lead to interventions that ensure systemic and substantial improvements for children in rural locations and from African language backgrounds.The Conversation

Surette van Staden is director: Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Is the State or the parents to blame for this sad state off affairs? By the way things are going in the schools a very large part of the children will be unemployable when they leave school.

No sure it matters much. The rising generation are, in the main, not going to get a job, no matter what

Out of all the comments posted here, this the only one that seem to see the bigger picture: economic growth underpins everything.

The system in SA is a Failure, from the moral values to the priorities of government, SADTU and the children parents.

50% of the blame is square on the parents! Most folks don’t spent 1 hour a day with each of their children, then comes a situation when people have 5, 6, 7 kids… Sad reality is that those parents believe it is the government and or teacher’s responsibility to educated the offspring.

25% of then blame is next on SADTU (South Africa Democratic Teachers Union), this guys seems to have heavy say when it comes to the placement of teachers and the running of schools.

SA Government remaining 25%… They dont have the Gooseberries to put SADTU in order and take the education system back nor do they have the moral compass to put the Parents with more than 3 kinds in order. It might be a question of Morality vs Humanity but after a person has 3 kids and a poor track record surely the government must step in somehow…

It is the reason why My wife and I have a 4 year old who we invest hours of our daily life and all our resources into his education, right now he can Speak 3 languages, write in 2 and do basic maths. Basically feels like i am redoing Grade 000 with my son passing in flying colours i might be the one failing because i cannot fit through the car tyre.

Some people think it is about having a smart kid, or a better educated kid than themselves but its not, Education is about giving your kid the foundation to achieve any and all types of success in life.

Well this shows to me in any case clearly that the teachers in quintile 1 schools either lack teaching skills or there is a lack of management. The teachers from grade R to 3 are the most important in a child’s life. If you cannot read properly you have a major disadvantage. We must get it right here.

I suspect that even though quintile 1,2 and 3 schools are receiving more funding, it’s probably not enough to employ great teachers. Schools in quintile 4 and above have parents who can contribute sufficient funds to employ the best or better teachers. Thus the issue is socio economic, but can be addressed meaningfully. Only 10% of the schools (of 26,000) are world class, 20% are ok and the rest are really bad. To solve, fix the administration of schools, train and equip teachers all to a world class standard and involve parents to the point where they understand the important role they need to play.

There is always the question of being taught in your mother tongue, especially during the forming years of a child.

People need to get real with the whole “mother tongue” teaching thing.

Language is a tool to communicate, a technology and it just is that some are more advanced than others. One page of English translates into two pages of Spanish.

Also trying teaching physics in Xhosa.

English is one of the more advanced languages, it will be in anyone advantage to get to terms with it.

Afrikaans is perhaps an advanced language considering it is a streamlined Dutch.

@henry666: I don’t buy the mother tongue “problem”. My home language growing up was Italian. Neither of my parents could speak English very well and at home all I heard was Italian. My father was a prisoner of war, captured and brought here by the SADF. He was tradesman while my mother, who joined him after the war, was a clerk. I do not recall having any problems with learning nor communicating with children at school. Managed fine thank you.

Corolla will change the way we work, employ and allocate. 90% of these kids won’t get jobs, they will need skills to be self employed and that will not come from this education system.

Since Karda Asmal in 1994 education has gone one way. Incompetence or deliberate, we all speculate. Were the 30 million ANC voters in the rural areas kept that way to vote ANC on the repeated empty promises of jobs, houses, money etc but instead get a sandwich and a T shirt.

Whats Toyota got to do with it ?? Corolla ?

Sorry SP.

The lack of success of our education system is due to a confluence of several issues. On the supply side, there is no shortage of money or support, because our budget allocation per capita for education is the highest in the world. The problems are at the demand side – the demand for education, on the individual motivational level, is very low. The government is pushing on a string, so to speak.

The Tripartite Alliance removed the motivation for kids to learn when they implemented the minimum wage. The minimum wage effectively eliminates all entry-level jobs. The market only employes those workers who are productive above the level of the minimum wage. Those whose productivity falls below the minimum wage are unemployed. The labour laws and the minimum wage removes entry-level opportunities for learners. What is the use of studying, when there are no opportunities for you? When everyone in your community is unemployed?

The lack of accountability, work ethic and performance testing at the socialist SADTU create an impenetrable canyon between the education budget and the matric results. The money is wasted on the parasitic attitudes and the slave mentality at SADTU.

When children grow up in a collectivist society, where accountability is shared by the collective, it is very hard to convince children that they should be individualists and accept the responsibility for their education. When they find themselves in an environment of shared resources, where the sophisticated right to own property is absent, then children cannot see the benefits of learning and improving themselves. Children from collectivist societies simply do not have the dream, the motivation, that children from individualist societies naturally have.

The difference between the results of different schools and learners within the same school can be ascribed to property rights, individualism, belief systems, accountability, opportunities and support from the parents. When the parents own property, they naturally groom their children to acquire and protect property.

No amount of money can solve these problems that collectivism left us with. A move towards free-market capitalism with the rule of law, individualism and property rights will improve the education results. The Tripartite Alliance cannot solve the problem because it is 100% of the problem.

Wishful thinking, Sensei!

Your thesis is completely undone by the success of China – which is THRASHING the USA – the very epitome of your thesis – in every which way you care to name.

The secret of Chinese success has been due to their small families, where the children are adored and indulged within a strong family unit.

Go into ANY Chinese shop in SA, and you will see this SAME effect playing out there.

By contrast, the decline of the US is very visible in the increase in the ghetto populations, where single mothers and bad fathers are the norm, and family values – as the REQUIRED BEDROCK of the community – are a complete myth.

@Johnnoxx: I think you have a very valid point. I cannot imagine a small happy family, not succeeding. The children raised in such an environment I suspect can only be better off (or equal at least) economically than their parents. I wonder if any studies have been made about this point?

Thank you, Paining!

The data is already there. In abundance. And it’s a really simple matter to dig it all out, and test it.

Just one tiny problem – the politicians aren’t interested.

I have had personal discussions directly with Premier Allan Winde of the Western Cape on this very subject.

He’s an all-round great leader – a huge improvement on Helen Zille in my personal experience, but still, full of excuses – at every turn – why other stuff has a higher priority.

He “hasn’t got enough money” (the perennial excuse of EVERY boss and politician who’s just looking for reasons to deny a request).

But wholeheartedly agrees that he is able to find the Billions necessary to deal with the CONSEQUENCES of NOT dealing with the root causes in the first place.

I’m still working on Winde, but is already Painfully obvious there’s not a great deal of depth in leadership or political will under him.

And the mob in Parliament (with the singular exception of John Steenhuizen) are utterly useless. Just there for the money and perks.

Nobody wants to rock the boat!

But the boat is leaking, and will sink anyway if no action taken.

The Chinese communist party changed from using collectivist economics to the free market system. That’s the reason for their success.

Paining, the studies have been done. A wall separated people of the same bloodline. Those children on the East did not succeed to the same extent as children from the West. The size of the family was irrelevant. The Berlin Wall separated property ownership from collectivism and the difference can still be seen today.

We have a similar experiment in South Africa. On the one side of the barbed-wire fence, we have property rights and on the other side, in the Transkei, we have communalism. The differences in educational outcome are clear to see. Family size is a result of accountability, not a determinant of it.


The relaxation of communism to allow a judicious hybridisation with capitalism is very definitely a key factor in the ascendancy of China.

But – and this is my point – that change alone does NOT explain China’s phenomenal success.

Because, BY ANY metric you care to choose now, China FAR surpasses that widely touted bastion of Capitalism, the USA.

How come a simple (but important) change in governance could allow a previously backward and impoverished country like China was, to not only OVERTAKE the USA, but to now also comprehensively THRASH it at its own game???

THAT’S the $60k question!

In my considered opinion, that answer rests MAJORLY in the superior quality of their children – which is ENTIRELY due to how well they have been parented.

By contrast, the quality of parenting in the US is in steady decline.

And those chickens are now coming home to roost!


The comparison between East and West Germany is mostly due to the philosophical difference between Capitalism and Communism.

I am not arguing parenting is at issue there! So irrelevant example.

The issue in SA is an entirely different matter altogether!

There’s NO need to confuse the issue by referencing the straw argument of “Transkei”

Just take the comparison to WITHIN Alexandra – right next to Sandton.

There, in a side-by-side comparison in the EXACT SAME environment, the positive influence of good parenting vs dysfunctional parents, is abundantly clear in BOTH the academic results of the kids in the schools, as well as in the general success of these very different families.

This article is just another illustration of the wishy-washy waffle and mindless handwringing prevalent in academia on anything related to “socio-economic conditions”.

The root causes of the problem are continuously evaded being identified.

And instead false solutions to a misdiagnosed problem have been chased for decades at the wasted cost and effort of billions.

The problem we see in education is the direct result of WIDESPREAD dysfunctional and irresponsible procreation.

In these communities, small, stable, loving, families with both mother AND father present are a minority.

These families NATURALLY produce brighter, more well-behaved, and more teachable kids.

Dysfunctional parents? Not so much. At all!

Want to fix education? Spend the money encouraging small, loving families. And the socio-economic problems will NATURALLY disappear of their own accord.

For proof, just look at the kids who already prosper at school. Invariably, all from the better families. Enough said!

Wow I am impressed, couldn’t agree more with you. As a high school teacher in quintile 1 school in KZN, I can tell you there is nothing wrong with the teachers in South Africa. I say this because in workshops teachers from quintile 1-5 schools all come together to develop each other.

It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you teach a child from a broken, very poor family you are gonna have a hard time. A typical parent of a 15-17 year old is between 29-33 years old, has three or more children, unemployed and doesn’t care about their child’s education. You can just tell that his is just gonna repeat itself. In my school and neighbouring schools, about 350 learners register in grade 8, only between 70 and 100 exit in grade 12. What happened to the others?

We are under lockdown and we are encouraged to reach out to our learners using social media, whatsapp etc. I have recorded videos of me teaching, compressed a 35 min video to 25MB of data, posted on facebook, provided google drive links to them, written pdf versions of the lessons. Nothing works, they just say the don’t have data. I teach grade 12 Physical Sciences in a class of 23 learners I am only interacting with just 1.

Easily fixed with lots and lots of laptops and tablets, right?

I think so, rather than investing in a traditional school with sports fields etc. set up data centres where there is enough bandwidth for kids to log in and get proper education online from proper teachers, those that want to learn can study free of bullying, pressure from other kids, and even pressure from teachers they do not get on with!Free wifi access for education purposes, surely MTN and Vodacom etc. can provide the service and get a tax break! Come on let’s get with it, this is the time to use technology and move away from the old way of doing things, kids don’t have to get on a bus and struggle through rural villages to get to an education centre, provide data to all! Another infrastructure development project that can create massive jobs!The only way to prosperity is through education, the only way to education in our country is through technology!

Public education system is the root cause of many of the issues faced today. Its designed for other reasons, they teach obedience foremost, put your head down, get a job and pay your taxes. They ostracize anyone who challenges the norms, fighting the status quo. It cannot teach anything about wealth and where it comes from. Collectivism failure at its finest.

I agree. If you want a degree in economics or asset management, you will have to memorise facts and theories that will only sabotage your performance but will ensure a steady market for government debt. If you study the economic theories and investment theories that guarantee outperformance, you won’t graduate. When it comes to making money as an investor, formal education can be detrimental to your wellbeing.

“This shows that socio-economic status remains a driver of achievement …” – the evidence presented at best supports an association between socio-economic status and educational achievement. Yet, the researcher uses causative language.

Why memorise a whole bunch of books at school when you can easily become rich by becoming an ANC cadre? All you need to do is get connected with the right people, support them and they will look after you. Just take Jacob Zuma as an example. He didn’t even finish primary school and he served two terms as president.

I really hope they start teaching students about Financial Education. And Readers, if you can, please sponsor your local school with financial books including any fantastic local Financial books and Rich Dad Poor Dad, the Richest Man in Babylon. If we can teach our kids to invest from a young age, it will be a game changer for South Africa!

End of comments.





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