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Education research in the spotlight at conference
Author: Pia Nänny
Published: 12/09/2018

​Three international guests and approximately 120 participants, including education researchers, policy-makers and PhD students, attended the fourth annual conference on Quantitative Education Research in Stellenbosch on 6 and 7 September.

The conference was hosted by ReSEP, a research group on Social Economic Policy situated within the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University (SU). The conference's aim is to consider education policy through a quantitative lens – unpacking the challenges faced by the education sector in South Africa and stimulating research and debate around these issues with the purpose of offering practical solutions.

Some of the topics presented and discussed were “Leadership and Literacy: Exploring linkages in rural and township school in South Africa", “Can we meaningfully measure school leadership and management in South Africa. The case of 60 township and rural schools" and “Quantitative research on early grade reading in African languages".

The three international speakers were Prof Paul Glewwe from the University of Minnesota, who spoke on “What explains Vietnam's exceptional performance in education relative to other countries?", Dr Abhijeet Singh from the Stockholm School of Economics, who spoke on “Evaluating reforms for system-level change in education: Evidence from multiple Indian states", and Justin Sandefur from the Centre for Global Development in Washington DC, who discussed “Internationally comparable mathematics scores for fourteen African countries".

On Friday, there were two parallel sessions where PhD students presented their PhD proposals and ongoing research, getting feedback from the participants.

Prof Servaas van der Berg, lead researcher at ReSEP and incumbent of the National Research Chair in the Economics of Social Policy at SU opened the conference with an overview of flows through school systems in Southern Africa – looking at South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho.

He pointed out a number of sobering patterns and trends, including the fact that while most children in Southern Africa attend primary school, many learners who should be enrolled in secondary school are not in some of these countries. Learners in all six countries also perform at a level far below the international average in international education evaluations. Prof Van der Berg highlighted several issues, including high drop-out rates, repetition policies (especially repetition without adequate support), the effect of remoteness (distance from main centres), shifts to outcomes-based curriculums and teacher supply and training.

“In South Africa we've done pretty well to get learners to remain in school and attain higher grades. However, that doesn't reflect the quality of learning," he said.

An important policy area that received much attention at the conference was setting benchmarks for reading fluency in African languages, and the need for teaching teachers how to teach reading in these languages. The weak state of mathematics education was also highlighted by a presentation on an intervention at Grade R level that considerably improved teacher knowledge but had only a small effect on children's learning.

​Photo: Prof Paul Glewwe, Dr Abhijeet Singh and Prof Servaas van der Berg.

Photographer: Anton Jordaan, SCPS