Monday, 1 February 2016

Is South Africa's education system the worst in Africa?

At a discussion on affirmative action hosted by trade union Solidarity , former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha took a swipe at South Africa's education system. "Our education system is far behind. It's the worst in Africa and we have the highest per capita expenditure in Africa. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's education system is better," he is reported to have claimed.

South Africa's education system has been strongly criticized over the these past years. There were the highly publicized textbook shortages and school infrastructure backlogs.  In 2012, the department of basic education's annual national assessments revealed that grade nine students on average scored 13 % for mathematics. But is South Africa's education system really the worst in Africa?

How education is ranked?

Ranking education systems is not as simple as comparing different countries and matric pass rates.  Different countries use different exams and have different pass rates.  In order to compare country's educational performance, the same test needs to be conducted on a representative sample of students in each country.

The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) consists of fifteen ministries of education.  The countries represented include Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

SACMEQ has conducted three education policy research projects:  1995 - 1998 , 1998 - 2004 and 2005 - 2010.  Data for the most recent research project was collected during the last quarter of 2007 from 61, 396 grade six students and 8, 026 grade six teachers in 2, 779 schools.  during the assessment , students were required to answer multiple - choice question on reading, mathematics and health.  the date from this assessment is the most recent and comprehensive survey on educational quality in sub- Saharan Africa.

South African's average student reading score placed it in tenth out of the fifteen countries scored.  Uganda, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia, and Malawi performed worse then South Africa.  Tanzania was the best performing country.  South Africa's average student mathematics score placed it eighth out of the fifteen countries.  Mozambique, Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia achieved lower rankings.

As of 2012 study published by Nicholas Squall and Stephen Taylor from the university of Stellenbosch questioned the existing practice of reporting education quality statistics that ignore enrollment statistics.  The percentage of children enrolled in school varies in different countries.

For example, 98% of South African children that should be in grade six are in school.  However, in Malawi only 85.7% of children that should be in grade six are in school.  Students that stay in the schooling stystem are usually the strongest, wealthiest and most able.  Poorer, weaker students often drop out.

By taking into account how many children have dropped out of school, Spaull and Taylor's studey calculates how many children that should be in grade six have acquired basic numeracy and literacy.  The study assumes that all children that are not in school are illiterate and innumerate.

SA still performs badly.

Only ten of the countries included in the third Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality research project had reliable and recent date on school attendance:  Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi , Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Taking enrollment into account, South Africa still performs badly.  Only 71, 2% of children that should be in grade six are literate.  It is ranked sixth out of the ten countries, behind Swaziland, Kenya, Tanzania, Nam ibia, and Zimbabwe.  Zambia is ranked last and only 49,3% of children that should be in grade six there are considered literate.

Only about 58,6% of South African children that should be in grade six are numerate.  In this regard South Africa is ranked fifth, behind Kenya, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.  Zambia, again, comes in last.  Only 28,8% of their grade six children are numerate.

Does South Africa spend the most on primary education?

Botha's second claim was that South Africa has the highest per capita education expenditure in Africa.  The 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report provided data on country's expenditure on primary education per pupil.

In 2007 South Africa was spending $1,225 on primary education per pupil - more then most African countries. However both Botswana and Seychelles were spending more per primary education in that year per pupil: 1,228 and 2,089 respectively.  Data for many African countries is not available in the report.

South Africa's low scores despite its education expenditure are worrying.  Kenya spends only $258 on primary education per pupil but performs better than South Africa in both reading and mathematics.

Botha's last claim, that Zimbabwe's education system is better than South Africa, is correct.  In both numeracy and literacy it is ranked higher than South Africa.

Conclusion- SA does not have the worst education systems in Africa

Botha's claim that South Africa's education system is "the worst in Africa" was false.  The available data, which notably does not cover countries in central Africa and the Sahel where conditions are more challenging, clearly shows that.

Taking enrollment rates in to account, South Africa performs better than many sub-Saharan African countries in both numeracy and literacy.  However, there is still a great deal of room for improvement.  South Africa consistently scores below such as Kenya and Swaziland, which spend considerably less on education then it does.


South Africa’s former apartheid-era foreign affairs minister, Pik Botha, recently claimed that the country’s education system is the worst in Africa. How much does Botha know about education system rankings? Very little it turns out. Data shows that while South Africa lags behind a number of African countries, there are many with worse education systems. - See more at:

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