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Is South Africa bottom of the class in maths and science? Why ranking is risky

| August 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

A recent report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF)1 has ranked the quality of South Africa’s maths and science education last out of 148 countries.

But how credible are the forum’s rankings and are they an accurate reflection of schooling systems around the world?

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”.

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).4

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 2005–2010.5 Data for the most recent research project was collected during the last quarter of 2007 from 61 396 Grade 6 students and 8 026 Grade 6 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 15 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 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 Stellenbosch6 found that while 71% of children in Grade 6 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 3% of school pupils in Grade 9 had achieved more than 50% in mathematics.7

Concerns have also been expressed about South Africa’s high dropout rate.8 For example, when the 2013 matric class started Grade 1 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.”

1. See:
2. See:
3. Ibid.
4. See:
5. See:
6. See: Spaull, N. and Taylor, S. (2012) “Effective enrolment – creating a composite measure of educational access and educational quality to accurately describe education system performance in sub-Saharan Africa”.
Available at:
7. See, for example:
8. See, for example: Africa Check (2014) “Why the matric pass rate is not a reliable benchmark of quality education”. Available at:

Category: Spring 2014

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