Is SA’s education system the worst in Africa? Not according to the data

Comments 11

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.

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.

An Africa Check reader recently asked us to evaluate the claim.

South Africa’s education system has been strongly criticised over the previous two years. There were the highly publicised 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

Pupils in class at the Loltulelei primary school in Kisima township in Kenya's northern county of Samburu. The school runs a parallel tuition programme to the national curriculum that enables the otherwise illeterate shepherds acquire literacy through the two to three hour tuition courses presided over by volunteer teachers. Photo: AFP/Tony KarumbaRanking education systems is not as simple as comparing different countries’ matric pass rates. Different countries use different exams and have different pass rates. In order to compare countries’ 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 questions on reading, mathematics and health. The data from this assessment is the most recent and comprehensive survey on educational quality in sub‐Saharan Africa.

South Africa’s average student reading score placed it tenth out of the fifteen countries scored. Uganda, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia and Malawi performed worse than 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.

Access to education

School pupils walk to school in Zimbabwe in this 2008 file photograph. Zimbabwe has been rated one of the most literate nations in Africa, despite the political instability there. Photo:AFP/Alexander JoeA 2012 study published by Nicholas Spaull and Stephen Taylor from the University of Stellenbosch questioned the existing practice of reporting education quality statistics that ignore enrolment 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 system 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 study 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 data on school attendance: Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Taking enrolment 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, Namibia, 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 SA spend the most on primary education?

Yibanathi Matikinca, 10, walks on June 14, 2013 walks to her classroom at the Qunu Junior Secondary School. Photo: AFP/Jennifer BruceBotha’s second claim was that South Africa has the highest per capita education expenditure in Africa. The 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report provides data on countries’ expenditure on primary education per pupil.

In 2007 South Africa was spending US$1,225 on primary education per pupil – more than most African countries.

However, both Botswana and the Seychelles were spending more per primary education per pupil: US$1,228 and US$2,089 respectively. Data for many African countries is not available in the report.

South Africa’s low scores despite its high education expenditure are worrying. Kenya spends only US$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 system in Africa

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

Taking enrolment rates into 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 countries such as Kenya and Swaziland, which spend considerably less on education than it does.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer


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Comment on this report

Comments 11
  1. By Andrew Scholtz

    Botha also apparently said that “Mugabe’s education system is better.” I did not see anything conclusive on this in the above article. My sense is that he is right but not, I believe, for the reasons he would out forward.

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  2. By Harry Muller

    The report regarding South Africa’s education system being the worst in Africa makes interesting reading. However, the only thing it intended to proof is whether Pick Botha’s statement is correct or false. As far as I am concerned, this is not the issue though the report does reveal interesting facts after all. The issues I would say that one has to look at is the following:

    – The well being and stable future for any nation starts on the school bench. The level of importance and enthusiasm to education demonstrated by the government is not on the required level it should be. In a rank of priorities, education is not where it should be.
    – Allowing teachers to strike is letting the learners down badly. This is as good as stabbing the future of a nation in the back.
    – It is good to compare ourselves to other countries, but only for purposes of performance monitoring. Why can we not set our own benchmarks and work according to that? Why don’t we want to be the best?
    – Adjusting actual exam results in order to make them look better serves no purpose other than cheating your learners. This only cultivates an attitude of working 50% as you will be passed in any way. We are breading a cheating nation and instilling the wrong perception of the meaning of achievement.
    – and lastly, what is the true value of education? If it was possible to really value education, no one would be able to afford it as the value of it is too high. Therefore, education should be the highest priority on any budget and the maximum amount of money should be allocated towards education. The level of quality of living for everyone in this country, will follow the quality of education provided.

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  3. By Interested

    Benchmarking South Africa against other African countries is questionable in terms of purpose. Regardless of how the country performs amongst other countries, our students are not, overall, internationally competitive. Last year South African learners performed poorly against other countries internationally in Mathematics, Science and literacy. What is more concerning is that the country performed below benchmarks considered “low performcance”. Yes, while pockets exist in ex-independent, ex-HOA and even ex-HOD schools (that perform in terms of upper benchmarks) these systems operate almost independently of the national system of education, which is struggling.
    One can argue about which countries perform best, and even argue over the knowledge and learning (curriculum) measured in these international tests (SACMEQ, TIMSS, PIRLS), but without realising that the state of education is endemic to a community and the overall level of family and social development therein – and thus fit solutions which actively intervene – change will be slow.

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  4. By Angie Baai

    Taking a second year high school student to do matric in SA they would still pass with distinction. What is math literacy but an excuse for real mathematics. Let’s face it, Zimbabwe education is better than ours by far. We as South Africans will take a long time to match it. For instance, our matrics go straight to university, whereas, Zimbabwe adopted the Cambridge way, higher education, that is more advanced and prepares a child for tough university and, better still, grows the mind. Worse off they have a curriculum, which forces every child to do a practical subject and has to be one of the end of year matric subjects, which we have to go to college for, they have done it already in high school. I saw a 17-year-old make fitted cupboards for a kitchen and well decorated and designed bedroom suite. Zimbabwe is far better than us guys. We need lots of work.

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    • By mak

      I echo your sentiments, though would like to put this into clear perspective. south africa is one of the last few african states to realise democracy and freedom more recently. zimbabwe had theirs in the early eighties and the same about other african states. remember, our trusted teachers were fed from apartheid education system for blacks, where every wrong methods were prescribed for blacks. remember the days where you had an end of year final exam question paper written in afrikaans?..see where we are coming from?. it is not that our kids can’t perform best, we simply need to change curriculums, make them more simpler and understandable. we need a lot of practical as at high school level, in this way, we will come right..south africa has good accredited universities, coming second to only one egyptain university and i looked for any zimbabwean university, can you believe it, coming 44th…

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    • By Wayne

      Getting distinctions in our schools are not that easy. Getting into Uni without an exemption is not that easy. Its not about the level of material offered that limits us, its the will to become something in life, and choosing to put your head down to work instead of going to play football with your friends. The system works, its us who dont work. Maths literacy is the only exception.

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  5. By Nhamo Chizvaure

    Sometimes these statistics are very correct, but naturally as human beings and universally, we all each wish his/her country is number in almost everything. And if that is not the case we run around picking a world of issues and excuses and sometimes our excuses get outlandish and desperate. I think if you’re are as we all are, proud of our countries, then let’s try and be mature enough to know the reality and deal with it in a way that will make us proud as nations and that is not an overnight thing but a process. I respect every country, hard work and not empty pride is the secret.

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  6. By Maya Dickens

    Maybe what our education systems need is people who believe that they can do something differently and take the step to do it. The government in most countries in Africa isn’t doing much to improve the learning systems. What then follows is a team of disgruntled teachers who are not well compensated and are therefor not fully motivated to do what they are trained to do. Here is an a very interesting Ted talk that gives a different view at at some of the things we can do to improve education systems in Africa .

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  7. By Modiakgotla Moroe






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    • By Michael Samuels

      I agree with Moroe. South Africa should not be comparing itself with the rest of Africa because we are the most developed country in Africa or we used to be… We must compare our systems to the rest of the world. If we are not on the top of the African list in all aspects of development, then we should be worried. Our education systems really reeks foul. Ever heard of promoting students because they not allowed to fail twice in a phase? This is the result of weak numeracy and literacy results. Learners are moving through the grades without a notebook or even a CAS portfolio. soon our university degrees will be worthless internationally. Its frightening and scary.

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      • By Tlhogi Dube

        The problems we face in South Africa are similar to those in other African Countries, not the USA. We cannot carry on assimilating to western opinions on our systems of education let us be our own people.

        Reply Report comment

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