Motshekga’s claim that school shutdowns during the Covid pandemic caused South African pupils to lose the equivalent of a year of education is mostly supported by research.
The evidence backs her claim that Progress in International Reading Literacy Study goals were set back “by a few years”.
And she was correct to say this pattern of schooling disruption has been “witnessed across the world”.
The Covid pandemic affected nearly all aspects of life in South Africa, including education. In March 2020, shortly before the country first went into lockdown, schools were closed to slow the spread of the virus.
By August of that year, schools reopened at half capacity, with some “remote learning” online or via radio and TV. These measures have been criticised for deepening inequalities in access to education.
Through all this, how much time of regular schooling did pupils lose?
In a May 2022 speech, basic education minister Angie Motshekga claimed that by the end of 2021 the average grade 4 pupil had the reading skills of an average grade 3 pupil before the pandemic. “Therefore, there has been a loss of one year of learning,” she said.
“Put differently, we slid backwards in terms of our Pirls progress by a few years.” Pirls, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, assesses the reading ability of schoolkids across the world every five years.
Motshekga also said that these delays in literacy learning were “similar to what has been witnessed around the world”.
But what is the evidence for her claims, and do they check out?
In a 2021 report on the pandemic’s education crisis, the World Bank and others define “learning loss” as “any loss of knowledge or skills and/or deceleration of or interruption to academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education”.
This loss can be measured by comparing the actual performance of students to their expected performance in their grade, and to the performance of students in the same grade in previous years.
Gustafsson told Africa Check that he had summarised studies of learning lost during the pandemic in a June 2022 presentation to the basic education department.
The studies found that across schools, grades and subjects, South African students lost the equivalent of 57% to 130% of one year’s learning. This means they lost out on skills they could have gained in at least half a year of schooling. In some cases, pupils lost the equivalent of more than one full school year.
The largest losses were identified in an analysis of grade 3 and 4 Setswana home language students. It found that grade 4 students performed worse on average in reading and oral fluency tasks than grade 3 pupils had in 2018.
“This signifies that the lost schooling during 2020 and 2021 has resulted in more than a year’s worth of lost learning,” the authors of the analysis wrote. The yearly loss of word reading skills was at 127%, and the loss of oral reading fluency at 131%.
The smallest losses were measured in grade 2 isiXhosa home language students, who lost the equivalent of 70% of a year in letter-sound knowledge and 57% in text reading skills.
Gustafsson told Africa Check that the research on pandemic learning losses focused on early grade reading ability because it was an important foundation for other learning, relatively easy to measure, and sensitive to school disruptions.
Maths learning also disrupted
But it’s not only literacy that has been delayed.
A 2022 report by Stellenbosch University’s Research on Socioeconomic Policy unit (Resep) measured performance in languages and maths across three grades in South Africa’s Western Cape province. It found that while all performance had declined, “by far the biggest declines” were in grade 3 and 6 maths, with grade 6 pupils in 2021 falling more than a year behind their 2019 equivalents.
Ursula Hoadley, a professor at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) school of education and a co-author of the report, told Africa Check that “learners have fallen 40% to 70% of a school year behind earlier cohorts in language and much more, 95% to 106% of a school year, in mathematics”. The estimates were conservative, she said.
Studies indicate that South Africa’s school pupils lost the equivalent of half a year to more than a year of education during the Covid pandemic. We therefore rate Motshekga’s claim as mostly correct.
The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or Pirls, assesses the reading ability of schoolkids across the world every five years. The assessment compares the performance of grade 4 pupils in certain countries to global benchmarks.
South Africa was part of the 2006 and 2016 Pirls studies. Pirls 2021, the most recent study, is yet to be released.
Dr Cally Ardington is a professor in the Southern African Labour Research and Development Unit at UCT, and a co-author of one of the studies in Gustafsson’s presentation. She told us that Motshekga’s Pirls claim came from a report that education expert Dr Nic Spaull prepared for The Reading Panel, a literacy nonprofit in South Africa.
According to the report, reading performance in South African schools had been steadily improving before the pandemic. But Covid set it back. The report estimates that “two years of school closures and rotational timetables have eroded the equivalent of 6.5 years of progress”.
Gustafsson told us that the estimate was plausible, as lost Pirls progress was “not a difficult thing to estimate”. Ardington said she wasn’t aware of any other research into the topic.
Pirls 2021 is expected to give a clearer picture of how the pandemic has affected education in South Africa.
For now, though, experts estimate that the country’s progress towards Pirls benchmarks has been set back several years.
Covid disrupted education across the world. The Resep report says maths education was hit particularly hard. This makes sense, it adds, “given that mathematics rests on a far more specialised knowledge base that is unlikely to be informally acquired when schools close”.
Another global pattern is that learning losses were more likely to affect pupils from lower income families. A study by the Center for Global Development, an economic research organisation, found that, across countries, poorer students had lost out on education the most.
UCT’s Hoadley told Africa Check that the Resep report’s findings, and other research, indicated that South Africa’s learning losses were similar to the rest of the world.
But these comparisons are tricky.
The standard deviation
Not all global comparisons are expressed in years of learning lost, making it difficult to compare the losses of different countries.
Many comparisons use the standard deviation, or SD. This measures what children are expected to learn in a certain period of time. There is some variation across grades, subjects, and countries, but the Resep report finds that “typical estimates for primary schools range between 0.30 – 0.60 SD” a year.
Resep calculates lost learning according to “an optimistic 0.40 SD of learning assumed to occur in primary education, and 0.30 SD in secondary education” in South Africa.
By this measure, Resep calculated that South African students lost 0.39 SD in grade 6 maths and 0.27 SD in language. Grade 9 maths students lost 0.32 SD.
Resep quotes two studies on learning lost to the pandemic in other countries. One, in the Netherlands, found a loss of roughly 0.08 SD, or a fifth of a school year. While much smaller than South Africa’s, this period of lost learning was “almost exactly” equal to the amount of time that schools in the Netherlands were closed during the pandemic.
Comparing the length of school closures
A more accurate comparison would need to look at the length of school closures in different countries.
The 2021 report by the World Bank and others does compare learning losses with the length of school closures taken into account. South Africa’s learning losses, even adjusted for the length of school closures, were similar to those in other countries, particularly Brazil and Russia.
But the results still vary according to study methods, countries, age groups and school subjects.
In broad terms, though, Motshekga’s claim that South Africa’s learning losses were similar to those seen around the world is correct.