There is an article in this week’s Economist that talks about the growing numbers of South Africa’s poor that are electing to send their children to private schools. And good for them if they’re finding ways to afford it.


I was a little taken aback by some of the statistics that were being thrown around.As a Zimbabwean, I’ve come through an excellent education system. One thing that Zimbabwe does well is literacy.

South Africa, apparently, not so much. And before the haters come in with their governmental criticism (which does get tiresome), let me put some statistics on the table.

The Shocking Statistics

Surveys done by the World Economic Forum

The WEF runs a survey* as part of its annual Global Competitiveness Report where it asks people to rate the education system in their country on a scale from 1 (unspeakably bad) to 7 (stellar).

In 2013, South Africa got a rating from South Africans of 2.1, which placed it 146th out of 148 countries (ahead only of Yemen and Libya).

The survey also asked people to assess the quality of South Africa’s Math and Science education specifically. With a score of 1.9, South Africa came 148th. Out of 148.

So either South Africans collectively have unreasonably high expectations of what an education system should be, or there’s a crisis. Or a bit of both, actually – again, the mindless government criticism does make the legitimacy of public opinion questionable.

PS: here’s a link to the survey: Global Competitiveness Report, although you’ll have to scroll down to page 462 for the data.

The 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)

This study was performed internationally to test the reading literacy of children across 49 countries, testing around 325,000 children for their reading skills.

Turns out, 43% of South African Grade 5 learners have not developed the basic reading skills required for reading at an international equivalent Grade 4 reading level.

And 29% of South African Grade 4 learners have not developed the basic reading skills required for reading at an international equivalent Grade 2 reading level.

Also: rural and township children are, on average, between 2 and 2½ years behind their urban counterparts in terms of reading ability.

From what I can tell: the main issue seems to be a lack of libraries (and textbooks – I know that’s a South African sore point!). More than half the sample of Grade 4 kids came from schools with no libraries – and on average, out of a total possible score of 1000, those children scored 155 points less than those from schools with libraries.

PS: here’s the report PIRLS 2011.

Government Spending

For 2013, 21% of the government’s total spending will go towards education. Compare this to Kenya’s 17% in 2011 – and Kenya scored higher on both the PIRLS and the WEF surveys.

This does not seem to be an issue of funding.

Back to the blame game

Usually, this is the point where someone starts to accuse the Department of Education of being corrupt and a giant failure and honestly Mary, let’s just move to Australia.

But I think that this is unfair (for the most part). Three reasons:

  1. Government has almost doubled the spending on education. True – this has had no noticeable impact on literacy levels (in fact, they seem to have decreased), but clearly, they’re trying.
  2. Government has also inherited a deeply complicated education system, which has strange boundaries and distinctions between state and province and class.
  3. But more than this, I have a deep dislike of trade unions – so obviously, this must be the fault of a trade union somewhere along the line.

The Record Rates of Teacher Absenteeism

According to studies carried out by the Human Sciences Research Council:

  • On any one day, 40,000 of the 400,000 teachers in South Africa are on leave. Which is between 20 and 24 days off a year per teacher (so by Grade 5, a child will be short of 100 days worth of school, which works out to 20 school weeks, so nearly half a year of school time lost).
  • This is particularly bad on a Monday and a Friday.
  • And the statistic aggregates too widely – because over a third of schools in South Africa have absenteeism rates that are higher than 10%, and more than a tenth of schools have teachers who take a day off the equivalent of once-a-week.
  • Absenteeism seems to be higher where the schools are in poorer regions (which makes it even less likely that there will be replacement teachers for the days off).

According to the Economist:

  • Teachers in state schools have a 3.5 hour working day on average – compared to 6.5 hours per day in the so-called Model C schools*.
    *in the lead up to the end of Apartheid in 1994, the apartheid government gave the soon-to-be-former-white schools the choice of reclassifying themselves under a range of structures (models A through D). Model C was a semi-private structure, with reduced state-funding and greater autonomy. Over 96% of former-white schools chose Model C. The term was abolished by the post-Apartheid government.
  • A fifth of teachers are absent on a Friday, which rises to a third by the end of the month.
  • The education minister Angie Motshekga admits that 80% of schools are “dysfunctional”.

The Response from the South African Democratic Teachers Union

SADTU have stopped any attempts to implement a Teacher Performance Appraisal system (here’s their resolution on the topic); and where they have conceded to some kind of quality management system, they have insisted that learner performance not be a part of performance appraisal for teachers.

Here is my question: why should a state-school teacher teach if their salary and incentives are not linked to either their performance or their presence at school?

A Lesson From India

A while ago, I wrote about the book “Poor Economics“, which I still think is one of the most worthwhile books I have read this year.

India faces a similar crisis of absent teachers and poorly-resourced schools. Charitable organisations attempted to remedy the issue by supplying textbooks privately – but this failed to make a difference in the studies that were done, because the children were not yet literate enough to read them.

In the end, two things made a difference:

  1. Parental involvement; and
  2. Teacher aides.

When it comes to absenteeism, the best form of regulation must come from those that have a direct interest in seeing the teachers at school. That is: the parents. So it’s actually quite encouraging to see the poor moving their children to private schools – because clearly, it demonstrates their demand for teachers that teach.

And as for the teacher aides, it’s amazing the difference that a little one-on-one attention can make to a child’s progress. Especially when teachers have a natural tendency to favour the gifted children in a classroom setting. So when you have one teacher running the class, and a second person (a volunteer mother with a six week training course in helping children with reading exercises) taking the struggling children aside one by one to help them with a particular task – what you get is more collective success.

It may also have the side-benefit of making the unionised teacher feel a bit bad for missing days in the face of a parent…

Either way, I think that public opinion should be more incensed with SADTU.