All learning starts in the home. These early learning activities stimulate children’s interest and their cognitive and social development. However, South Africa is a vastly unequal country — which was highlighted again by our showing in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss).
Participating in Timss at the grade five level gave the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) an opportunity to learn much more about activities in the pre-grade one period, both in terms of a child’s early home environment and preschool institutions and their impact on that child’s achievement.
Forty-eight countries participated in Timss 2015 at the grade four or five level. The Timss numeracy study provides an opportunity for South Africa to estimate its achievement in relation to other countries and establish the baseline for what our children’s mathematics achievement should be at age 11.
Similar to the Timss grade nine performance, the top five countries were from East Asia — Singapore (618), Hong Kong (614), South Korea (608), Chinese Taipei (596) and Japan (593).
The five lowest-performing countries were in Africa and the Middle East — Jordan (389), Saudi Arabia (384), Morocco (378), South Africa (376) and Kuwait (354).
Results at the grade five level also show that South African achievement continues to be highly unequal. Three in five South African learners (61%) do not exhibit the minimum competencies in basic mathematical know-ledge required at that level — a score of 400 or more.
When achievement is broken down by school type, the patterns reveal the depth of the inequalities present in the system: about 84% of learners in independent schools, 67% of those attending public fee-paying schools and just a quarter of those at public no-fee schools achieved this minimum-level competency.
However, it is encouraging to see a small pocket of excellence, with just over 1% of South African learners scoring at the advanced level of achievement (a score higher than 625) — a feat that just 6% of learners globally achieve.
None of the other lowest-performing countries has learners in this top category and although this group comes predominantly from independent and fee-paying schools, there is a handful from no-fee public schools achieving this level.
The report also shows considerable variation on a provincial basis. The Western Cape, Gauteng and Mpumalanga are the three highest performers, with the North West, Limpopo and Eastern Cape the lowest performing. The difference between the highest- and lowest-performing provinces is 98 points, the equivalent of more than two grades.
Socioeconomic indicators such as the parents’ own level of education and the number of books present in the home are positively related to learner achievement: those with more resources have higher mathematics scores.
The HSRC’s findings also demonstrate that learning is not a formal process that begins on the first day of school. Rather, it is a cumulative process beginning with the early introduction of educational activities in the home, and so the authors highlight that what parents “do” matters alongside what they have.
Features of the early home environment such as reading books, playing games involving letters, shapes and numbers, and singing counting songs are positively associated with individual performance.
For example, learners whose parents often read books to them score an average of 35 points more — the equivalent of almost a whole grade — than those whose parents do not read to them. Where parents frequently play games involving shapes and puzzles, the difference is 40 points.
The knock-on effect of early educational experience is also present in terms of school readiness: learners who start school when they are ready and equipped to learn perform better in mathematics at grade five level.
Across a range of measures, individuals with a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy skills prior to grade one outperformed those with only minimal competencies by an average of 84 points, or two grades.
These early differences are more pronounced by social background, which is again exacerbated by the types of schools learners attend. So, even small gaps when they start school widen substantially as the learner proceeds through the education system.
Good-quality preschools therefore offer an important boost for learners and give them a good start.
Preschool attendance in South Africa is now almost universal, with almost nine out of every 10 grade five learners having had some form of schooling prior to grade one.
As with early exposure to educational activities in the home, both in South Africa and internationally, the more preschool instruction received by learners, the higher their average mathematics score was in grade five.
But although access has improved, high-quality early education appears to remain elusive for the most marginalised groups: children in no-fee schools do not show the same positive effect on their performance from attending preschool as learners in public fee-paying and independent schools do.
Parents’ expectations for their child’s educational career are also positively associated with learner achievement: learners whose parents want them to go far with their education score, on average, more highly in numeracy achievement.
For example, learners whose parents only expect their child to finish lower secondary school (2%) score, on average, 27 points lower than those whose parents want them to complete grade 12 (11%).
The majority of parents have exceptionally high expectations, with more than half (54%) wanting their child to finish a postgraduate degree.
The analysis repeatedly shows that the more “good” contexts there are, the better it is for the child’s educational development.
In other words, the more positive inputs a learner experiences — in the form of household resources, educationally rich activities and settings, and high educational expectations — the better their performance in mathematics will be.
Yet there is no silver bullet: there doesn’t appear to be any interaction between these different “inputs” and it doesn’t appear that any one “good” context can entirely make up for a “bad” or impoverished one.
Rather, the effects are cumulative over time. So, to raise South Africa’s position in the international Timss rankings, any investment needs to target those with the most to gain and pull up the long-lying tail of underperformance to over the 400-point “low” achievement level.
To raise the bar for South African learners, policy strategies and the national narrative must reinforce the value of education and the role of both the home and school in contributing to improving learning outcomes across the board.
The key challenge for the government is to improve the quality of pre-grade one institutions for those whose need is greatest: the poorest and most marginalised.
The main policy challenges here relate to providing the appropriate resources to stimulate learning and foster excellence in teaching and learning, and to improve the conditions of service for teaching staff.
We must provide a high-quality investment in these early and most formative of years, so that learners start with the foundational skills on which to build core knowledge that will develop and unfold throughout the schooling system.
This is the only way we will have any chance of closing the current achievement gaps.
Vijay Reddy, Kathryn Isdale and Andrea Juan are researchers for the grade five Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). This article draws on the HSRC’s 2015 Timss report