Is SA bottom of the class in maths and science? WEF ranking is meaningless

Comments 14

A report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked the quality of South Africa's maths and science education last out of 148 countries. But is the ranking an accurate reflection of the state of schooling in the country?

South Africa’s education department has reacted angrily to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report that ranked the country last out of 148 countries for the quality of its maths and science education.

The WEF’s 2014 Global Information Technology Report also ranked South Africa 146th for the overall quality of its education, below a host of other African countries including Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Senegal, Nigeria, Tanzania, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali.

Only Yemen – at 147th position – and Libya – at 148th – fared worse.

In response, South Africa’s Department of Basic Education issued a press release dismissing the report as “not a credible or accurate reflection of the state of education in South Africa”.

Is the WEF ranking accurate?

There are two key problems  – both of which we touched on in a previous report that looked at the WEF’s research methodology.

Firstly, no standardised tests were conducted to assess the quality of maths and science education in the countries surveyed.

Secondly, the ranking was derived from an annual “Executive Opinion Survey” carried out by the WEF. This opinion survey draws on interviews with various unidentified “business leaders”.

In this instance, around 50 South African “business leaders” were asked to assess the quality of maths and science education in the country and score it from poor to excellent. Individual responses were then arbitrarily weighted according to the sector each “business leader” worked in. The weighting was based on the “estimated contributions to a country’s GDP of each of the four main economic sectors: agriculture, manufacturing industry, non-manufacturing industry, and services”.

Martin Gustafsson, a researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, told Africa Check that the report offered no valuable insight into the quality of maths and science education in South Africa.

“There is valuable data in the report. For things like business confidence it is useful. But you can’t apply opinions to things like education. It is like asking business experts what they think the HIV rate is,” he said.

The education rankings are not, in fact, an assessment of the quality of maths and science education in South Africa or any of the other 147 countries covered. Instead they are simply a reflection of the personal opinions of a small group of unidentified “business leaders” about a topic in which they are not expert.

Where is South Africa ranked?

In order to accurately rank an education system you need to do a lot more than ask unnamed “business leaders” for their opinions.

To compare educational performance across a number of different countries you need a standardised test and a representative sample of students to take the test in each country.

The most comprehensive and most current data on educational performance across a number of African countries was compiled by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ). Countries represented in the consortium include Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

SACMEQ conducted three major education policy research projects between 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.  Students were required to answer multiple-choice questions on reading, mathematics and health.

South Africa’s average student maths score placed it eighth out of the fifteen countries.  Mozambique, Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia all scored lower than South Africa in the SACMEQ test, yet they were all ranked higher in the WEF’s report.

Zambia, for instance, came in last in the SACMEQ test. But in the WEF report, it  was ranked in 76th position, higher than Lesotho (105), Malawi (113), Uganda (119), Namibia (128), Mozambique (137) and South Africa (148).

Major problems do exist

Of course this does not mean that all is well in South Africa. The performance of South Africa’s education system has been subject to severe criticism in recent years.

A 2012 study published by the University of Stellenbosch found that while 71% of children in grade six were functionally literate, only 58.6% could be considered functionally numerate.

The study noted that “at least a quarter of children are enrolled but have learnt so little in six years of formal full-time schooling that they have not even mastered functional literacy or numeracy”.

The basic education department’s own academic assessments revealed last year that just three percent of school pupils in grade nine had achieved more than 50% in mathematics.

Concerns have also been expressed about South Africa’s high dropout rate. For example, when the 2013 matric class started grade one in 2002, there were 1,261,827 pupils. By the time they sat their final exams, those numbers had more than halved to 562,112.

Conclusion: SA school system in trouble but WEF ranking gives little insight

South Africa’s basic education department is correct. The WEF’s education rankings are not an accurate reflection of the state of education in South Africa. At best they are a reflection of the opinions of around 50 “business leaders”.

An accurate ranking system would require a system of standardised tests conducted by a representative and accurately weighted sample of pupils across  a number of different countries.

There are still very real concerns about the state of education, literacy and numeracy in South Africa.

Gustafsson summed it up: “The bottom line is that test-based data suggests that indeed South Africa’s quality of education requires a lot of fixing, and is well below where it should be. Yet the catchy slogan that we are ‘at the bottom of the world’ is not supported by the evidence.”

Edited by Julian Rademeyer

Additional reading

GUIDE: Assessing South Africa’s schooling system

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

Why the matric pass rate is not a reliable benchmark of education quality

© Copyright Africa Check 2020. Read our republishing guidelines. You may reproduce this piece or content from it for the purpose of reporting and/or discussing news and current events. This is subject to: Crediting Africa Check in the byline, keeping all hyperlinks to the sources used and adding this sentence at the end of your publication: “This report was written by Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organisation. View the original piece on their website", with a link back to this page.

Comment on this report

Comments 14
  1. By Stuart Theobald

    Why the disparagement of “business leaders”? The WEF methodology surveys participants in their meetings. Generally these are people who are worthy of the term.

    While I agree that the opinions of these people are merely their opinions, that is not of no import. The fact that the leaders of our economy perceive South Africa’s education system to be so poor is material. If their perceptions are incorrect, which your piece seems to be saying, then the question should be why do business leaders hold these incorrect opinions? The answer to that would be interesting.

    Reply Report comment
    • By Africa Check

      We are not disparaging “business leaders”. We are criticising the methods used by the WEF. Education quality can be measured accurately in a way that is far more insightful and useful than a ranking system based on opinions.

      The fact that business leaders perceive the education system to be poor is material. But it is certainly not the basis for an accurate ranking system of education quality.

      Reply Report comment
      • By Stuart

        The WEF opinion poll is done every year and its methodology is well known. It does use somewhat misleading terminology in calling itself a “global competitiveness report” but it does make clear that its methodology is based on “an executive opinion survey”. I don’t think it ever purported to be “an accurate ranking system of education quality”.

        The real problem, and what animated the basic education department, is the way this report was used by some journalists to make claims about the objective state of the education system. That was where the problem lies – the failure of fact is not in the report itself, it is in the misrepresenting of the report by journalists.

        Incidentally, the government has no problem quoting this same survey approvingly when it comes to positive readings, like the very high rankings it gives to our capital markets and banking system. These rankings, though, are again just the opinions of executives, not some objective measure.

        On the matter of disparagement, why the use the scare quotes? Were someone to write about “journalists” I think their intention would be clear, no?

        Reply Report comment
        • By Africa Check

          The WEF’s methodology is clearly not that well known, judging by the commentary and many of the news articles in South Africa and internationally following the release of the report. As you point out, the report does use misleading terminology.

          The problem lies with the report, the manner in which it attempts to rank education quality across countries on the basis of an opinion survey and with the way it was interpreted by reporters.

          Those are not “scare quotes”. We refer to “business leaders” in quotation marks because that is the term used by the WEF to describe the otherwise unidentified people who participated in their opinion survey.

          Reply Report comment
          • By Ron

            It’s disturbing that opinion surveys are presented without a blush as seemingly accurate assessments of worldwide situations.

            The Forum describes the WEF as follows in its mission statement . . .”The Forum strives in all its efforts to demonstrate entrepreneurship in the global public interest while upholding the highest standards of governance. Moral and intellectual integrity is at the heart of everything it does.”

            The statement regarding moral and intellectual integrity is problematic for me. How can any so-called scientist square the results of an opinion survey with a topic that can be quite easily researched without an explanation?

            It’s not only politicians who jump to conclusions. Surely the media has a responsibility to exercise its grey cells before swallowing errant nonsense? But then of course there would be no need for Africa Check! My institution used to subscribe to the annual report until we looked at it closely.

            That said, no thinking South African would rejoice at the state of our education but ‘research’ like this is best described by King Solomon thousands of years ago, “There is nothing new under the sun . . .and all is meaningless, utterly meaningless, . . . a chasing after the wind!”

  2. By Sindi

    Thank you to Gustafson for pointing out the methodology error . SACMEQ and PIRLS are able to qualitatively show where countries are in terms of Math and Science. The challenges are and are being addressed. This is turning the Titanic, it takes some bit of a time!

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Doctor

    Thank you for such a brilliant article . I’m a product of the new education system that was implemented in South Africa .I think when we look at South Africa we have to remember that apartheid had a negative effect on our country .

    Solving the education problem in S.A is not going to take 20 years. I think residents of the republic , business , and educational institutions need to sit down and come with a strategy to make our education better .

    It doesn’t make any sense to have S.A occupy the first 4 places in the top Universities in Africa and yet struggle in terms of basic education .

    Reply Report comment
  4. By catherine stone

    The single, most destructive action taken in SA post 1994 was the closing down of Teachers’ Training Colleges. Thank you for an excellent article – and for delving, to come up with the truth!

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Dr Ken Alston

    The article and the comments are interesting. Yes, the methodology is not “scientific” but the article raises issues which are very serious. After nearly forty years in education it is depressing to see how so many children are suffering at the hands of those who care so little!! We have schools and schools… ranging from excellent to depressingly poor… and in the latter, the children suffer. The solution starts with teacher training. I understand that such training was raised to four years but has gone back to a minimum of three years – a terrible move!! We need highly trained teachers in ALL schools. Use the world’s best school education system as the example, namely FINLAND. In that country ALL teachers must have FIVE years training and must complete a Masters Degree – that is all teachers wanting to teach anywhere from Grade 1 to Grade 12. And Finland has far more applicants to train as teachers than University places available! The focus has to be on excellence and nothing less. There must be no place for teacher strikes, late arrival at school, leaving early, etc etc. It is time the State leads the way with excellence at Education Department level, and demands excellence in training institutions and in school classrooms. Second best is never acceptable. It is equally time the voters of this country demand such excellence and value for their taxes… and let’s see the Consti
    tution put into operation… “The BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD ARE PARAMOUNT… “

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Ted

    The 2015 report has again placed South Africa at the bottom for maths and science. Time for some preemptive fact-checking, before the truth is distorted again.

    Reply Report comment
  7. By Truth Speaker

    The article reports out of about 1,26m pupils enrolled, the matriculation class has 500 000-odd left. Horrifically scary. South Africa cannot do anything but fail given those numbers. What are the 700 000 drop outs doing ?? Unemployed mostly, crime, etc. What else is their lot?? Govt has failed dismally at improving education. An absolute time bomb just waiting to explode.

    Reply Report comment
  8. By Stacy Liddell

    Just interested at why you believe standardized testing is required? The Finnish education system is heralded as one of the best in the world and it requires learners to do no (yes you read it correctly) standardized testing whatsoever until their final year of high school. Standardized testing means you can teach the test and does very little in assessing real world application. I have seen this first hand with second language English speakers who can ace the TOEFL but can barely hold a conversation in English.

    Reply Report comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Africa Check encourages frank, open, inclusive discussion of the topics raised on the website. To ensure the discussion meets these aims we have established some simple House Rules for contributions. Any contributions that violate the rules may be removed by the moderator.

Contributions must:

  • Relate to the topic of the report or post
  • Be written mainly in English

Contributions may not:

  • Contain defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or harassing language or material;
  • Encourage or constitute conduct which is unlawful;
  • Contain material in respect of which another party holds the rights, where such rights have not be cleared by you;
  • Contain personal information about you or others that might put anyone at risk;
  • Contain unsuitable URLs;
  • Constitute junk mail or unauthorised advertising;
  • Be submitted repeatedly as comments on the same report or post;

By making any contribution you agree that, in addition to these House Rules, you shall be bound by Africa Check's Terms and Conditions of use which can be accessed on the website.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.