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Validating ‘the truth’ about SA’s education system

Gopolang Makou & Kate Wilkinson

A South African Twitter account promises to “tell you the truth, no matter how hard it is to accept”. But are the education claims @Sowellnomicsrecently tweeted to its over 10 000 followers the truth?

“South Africa has the 3rd worst education system in the world, 50% of students drop out of the system, while only 30% get the marks requires [sic] to get into Uni,” the account claimed.

The tweet was retweeted 763 times and liked by 1 479 people by the time we published this report. Africa Checked dug into the data behind the tweet’s three claims.

Claim: “South Africa has the 3rd worst education system in the world”.

Verdict: Incorrect

To support the claim that “South Africa has the 3rd worst education system in the world”, @Sowellnomics tweeted a MyBroadband articlefrom 2016.

The article reported on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Information Technologyreport. The WEF placed South Africa 137th out of 139 countries for the overall quality of its education system. (Note: This isn’t the total number of countries in the world. The United Nations currently recognised 193 member states.)

More recent data from the WEF’s 2017/18 Global Competitiveness Index report ranked South Africa 114th out of 137 countries for the quality of its education system.

WEF rankings ‘subjective, unscientific’

But the way the WEF assesses education quality has been severely criticised by education experts. Nic Spaull, a research fellow with Research on Socio-Economic Policy (RESEP) at Stellenbosch University, has described the rankings as “subjective, unscientific, unreliable and [lacking] any form of technical credibility or cross-national comparability”. That is because the rankings are based on the opinions of unidentified “business leaders” – 170 for South Africa, in the case of the Global Competitiveness Index report.

No pupils were tested and educational performance was not compared to determine a country’s education quality. Martin Gustafsson, a researcher in the school of economics at Stellenbosch University, has previously stressed that while the rankings could offer insight into business confidence, it doesn’t speak to the quality of education in the country.

“You can’t apply opinions to things like education,” Gustafsson told Africa Check. “It is like asking business experts what they think the HIV rate is.”

More useful measures available

A more insightful measure of a country’s education system would be standardised tests, like those compiled by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality(SACMEQ).

In 2007, 61 396 Grade 6 pupils from 2 779 schools were tested. (Note: The most recent SACMEQ assessment is from 2013, but there are concerns about the comparability and validity of the results.)

South Africa’s average student maths score placed it eighth out of 15 countries, ahead of Mozambique, Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia. Its average student reading score placed it 10th out of the 15 countries, ahead of Uganda, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia and Malawi.

South Africa’s education system does face serious challenges. But the claim that it has the “3rd worst education system in the world” is not based on rigorous data.

Claim: “50% of students drop out of the system”

Verdict: Misleading

“The dropout statistic obviously depends on how one defines ‘dropping out’,” Gustafsson told Africa Check. Data shows that between 2014 and 2016 an estimated 50% of 22 to 25-year-olds had not passed matric.

“But many of these youths at least attempt the [senior certificate] examinations and fail – I wouldn’t consider these youths ‘dropouts’,” says Gustafsson. “A useful statistic [to consider] is the number of South Africans, by age, who did not successfully complete Grade 11.”

A recent internal analysis from the department of basic education found that 67.6% of people born between 1990-1992 managed to pass Grade 11, meaning 32.4% of them “dropped out” of the secondary education system.

“Hardly any of these [pupils] would successfully complete the desired or ideal alternative, a qualification in a public TVET college,” said Gustafsson. “Some might complete other qualifications beyond school… but those numbers are not large.”

Last year of compulsory schooling Grade 9

Gustafsson told Africa Check that it is also important to look at the Grade 9 completion rate, as it is the last year of compulsory schooling in South Africa. The most recent publicly available data shows that in 2016, 88.6% of young people between the ages of 19 and 21 had passed Grade 9.

This means that 11.4% of young people in this age bracket had dropped out of the education system before successfully completing the minimum amount of education prescribed by law.

Claim: “[O]nly 30% [of students] get the marks requires [sic] to get into [university]”.

Verdict: Mostly correct.

The latest National Senior Certificate results show how many students qualified for university entrance. To apply for university, a pupil needs to achieve at least 30% in their language of learning along with at least 50% in four other subjects.

Of the 534 484 students who sat for the National Senior Certificate exam in 2017, a total of 153 610 received a bachelor pass. This means 28.7% of the candidates who wrote the exam received the necessary marks to apply for a place at one of South Africa’s universities. This compares to 26.6% of the 610 178 students who wrote the national senior certificate in 2016 and 25.8% of the 644 536 who wrote in 2015.

Year Number of candidates % receiving a bachelor pass
2017 534 484 28.7%
2016 610 178 26.6%
2015 644 536 25.8%

Source: Department of basic education

– This fact-check was researched by Kate Wilkinson and Gopolang Makou for Africa Check, the continent’s leading fact-checking organisation.

Read it on their website here.

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