The adult literacy campaign provides a good example of what can be achieved.
South Africa is now in the fifth year of the Kha ri Gude adult literacy campaign, which is designed to provide basic literacy and adult basic education to more than four million people. Given the scale of the campaign, the success with which the learning it provides is assessed — and, moreover, shown to be accurately assessed — is remarkable.
This achievement is part of the broader success of a campaign that has received very little publicity or public acclaim, all the more notable given the dearth of good news about South Africa's education system. The verification of the Kha ri Gude assessment has demonstrated that good control of assessment can be achieved even under the most difficult conditions and good data can be generated by a South African educational initiative.
Kha ri Gude has managed to register more than 2 240 000 adults since 2008 and more than 80% of them have completed the six-month courses. It has delivered comprehensive, professional and attractive published curriculum materials to every learner — workbooks and portfolio books in all 11 official languages and in Braille, as well as educators' guides.
The campaign has developed an efficient logistics system that annually distributes more than 660 000 sets of materials to all parts of the country, tracks enrolment and collects and manages the return of more than 600 000 learners' portfolios while managing the registration and payment — mainly small stipends — of nearly 40 000 educators in informal venues such as homes, garages, churches and community halls.
The campaign "cascades" delivery effectively through a successful hierarchy made up of voluntary educators, who are responsible for the recruitment and teaching of at least 18 learners each year. They are assisted by local supervisors under the guidance of district co-ordinators, who report to national management housed in the department of basic education.
Finally, it has taken an official approach to moderation and verification that links the programme to the quality demanded by the national qualifications framework and allows successful learners to be recorded on the national learner database.
The Kha ri Gude literacy campaign was launched in April 2008 after two years of planning and development. The 2006 report of the ministerial committee on literacy provided a recommendation and plan for such a campaign and the Cabinet approved it in November that year.
It started operating in 2008 under chief executive officer Professor Veronica McKay and enrolled 357 195 learners. Subsequent years have seen large enrolment numbers.
An outstanding retention rate
Each year, 40 000 classes of 18 learners, in all languages and in every part of the country, deliver basic literacy and numeracy at a cost of less than R770 a learner. By international standards, the campaign has an astounding retention rate: more than 90% of learners submit their final assessment at the end of the six-month programme.
Such enrolment and retention numbers are impressive and suggest that South Africa could well be on the way to reducing the number of illiterate adults by 50% to meet its commitments to the Unesco Education for All goals by 2015.
The management of the logistics, stipendiary payments and the learner database have been outsourced to a commercial company. Specially prepared workbooks in all South African languages and Braille were delivered to all the learners.
The delivery infrastructure developed by the campaign has worked extremely well and is an invaluable mechanism available to all government departments. It is currently being used by the government's expanded public works programme. The stipendiary payments support nearly 40 000 jobs a year and bring more than R450-million into poorer communities and rural areas.
The obvious questions that had to be asked when the campaign was launched in 2008 were: Are learners in classes? Are educators teaching them? Is there real evidence that the participants can do basic reading, writing and counting?
Kha ri Gude reports since 2008 have shown that the campaign has worked well. The completion of programme rates have been high. In 2009, the second year of the programme, 89% of the learners, or 545 666, finished it and submitted an assessment portfolio. There were 566 190 in 2010 and 613 275 last year.
Was there a way to verify this and, particularly, assess the learning gained by people who went to the classes?
In 2009, I was fortunate enough to be commissioned by the South African Qualifications Authority to join a team to conduct a verification exercise on the assessment conducted by Kha ri Gude.
In each of the years 2009 to 2012, there was a two-and-a-half-day moderation workshop in which a three-person team of specialists (the senior verifiers), appointed by the qualifications authority, oversaw about 200 moderators and 20 verifiers who checked a large sample of the learners' portfolios submitted at the end of the previous year.
The moderators, guided by verifiers appointed for each language, examined substantial samples of the portfolios that reflected the distribution of languages and provinces. Overall, the marking was judged to be excellent or acceptable in 80% of the cases and there was no need to adjust the marks upwards or downwards.
Conventionally, moderators (or external examiners) remark a percentage of scripts (usually 10% or less) and should they find a general trend for the original marks to be too high or too low, a statistical adjustment is made to all the candidates' marks.
The Kha ri Gude verification, although it also encompassed traditional moderation, focused on a different target — the marker, not the learner. Too much variation in the marking was considered a real possibility, particularly because many of the educators had fairly minimal training as literacy instructors.
Therefore, the qualifications authority's verification process focused initially on the marking and the moderators were asked to moderate the marking. This, of course, required something of a mind shift from looking at what the learner got right or wrong to what the marker got right or wrong. Some counter-intuitive judgments have to be made, for example, that a learner who got a very low mark may indeed have been marked in an excellent way or that a learner who got a very high mark may have been badly marked.
There is evidence of a growing rigour among the markers in their differentiation between excellent marking and simply acceptable marking. This can be ascribed partly to the training related to the marking of the portfolios given by Kha ri Gude and partly to the influence of the qualifications authority's verification workshops themselves.
As a further form of verification, the authority conducted pilot-site visits in November last year, using a sample of 177 physical sites with learners from about 300 classes. At each site, it asked the learners to complete assessment exercises that were similar in content and difficulty to some of those in the learner portfolios.
The scores for the site visit assessment exercises and the equivalent learner portfolio activities were found to be broadly comparable. Although the pilot-site visits were a relatively small sample, they do suggest that the assessments of the portfolios were competent.
The ways in which Kha Ri Gude has managed its assessment and the moderation and verification of it is elegantly straightforward and might be considered for other initiatives and even for primary schooling, particularly in those grades where there are no external examinations.
John Aitchison is emeritus professor of adult education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This is an edited version of his address to the 2012 Umalusi conference. He was a member of the ministerial committee on literacy that, in 2006, proposed the initial plan for the Kha ri Gude campaign and is a senior verifier of the South African Qualifications Authority's Kha ri Gude verification process
Education for All research team: COMMENT
Literacy is crucial for adults' and their children's social and economic wellbeing. But worldwide progress on Unesco's Education for All goal — halving adult illiteracy by 2015 — has been limited, largely because of government and donor indifference.
There is a strong association between poor literacy skills and marginalisation, indicating a need for innovative ways to provide more and better adult literacy programmes.
The global adult illiteracy rate was 16% in 2010, corresponding to about 775-million adults, almost two-thirds of whom are women. Progress in reducing adult illiteracy has slowed in recent years. After a decrease of almost 100-million in the 1990s, the number of illiterate adults fell by less than eight million between 1995 and 2004 and 2005 and 2010. It is projected that by 2015 there will still be 738-million illiterate adults, a reduction of only 16% since the 1985 to 1994 literacy data reference period.
More than half of all illiterate adults live in south and west Asia, and more than one-fifth in sub-Saharan Africa. Literacy rates have been growing too slowly in sub-Saharan Africa to counter the effects of population growth. As a result, the number of illiterate adults in the region has grown by 27% during the past 20 years, reaching 169-million in 2010.
Global literacy estimates are based on national surveys and censuses, which include questions about whether the respondent or household members have been to school and are literate. This approach can over-
estimate literacy levels, in part because respondents may be reluctant to reveal that they cannot read or write. Direct assessments of literacy skills provide a much better understanding of literacy levels than either self-declarations of the ability to read and write or the number of years of formal education.
The Unesco Institute for Statistics's literacy assessment and monitoring programme is an attempt to measure literacy and numeracy skills directly and draws attention to the neglected role of literacy practices and literate environments in maintaining literacy skills. The analysis of direct literacy tests from household surveys shows that completing primary school does not ensure that such skills are acquired by all.
On a global scale, few illiterate adults live in rich countries. The majority of the world's 775-million illiterate adults are concentrated in a small group of countries that have experienced different rates of progress during the past two decades. India alone contains 37% of the global number of illiterate adults.
The stark truth is that most countries will miss the Education for All goal. Among 73 countries with adult literacy data for both the 1998 to 2001 and 2008 to 2011 periods, 40 countries had literacy rates below 90% in the earlier period. Of these, only three are expected to meet the goal: Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia, each of which started with a literacy rate close to 90%.
This is an edited extract from Unesco's 2012 Education for All global monitoring report, published last month