Shining the spotlight on foundational learning in South Africa

new report placing a spotlight on foundational literacy and numeracy in South Africa was published and launched last month at the 2024 Basic Education Sector Lekgotla, the annual gathering on the state of basic education hosted by the Department of Basic Education. The work was undertaken by the Global Education Monitoring Report and the Association for the Development
of Education in Africa (ADEA) in partnership with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) officials and advocacy activities.

It is the first country report to be launched as part of the second cycle of the Spotlight, or Born to Learn, series, which will consist of one continental and four country reports on foundational learning: the other three counties are Mauritania, Uganda and Zambia.

The research aimed to answer four overarching questions:

  • Which mathematics domains and constructs are included in the country’s curriculum, textbooks, teacher guides and national assessment at grade 3 and the last grade of primary?
  • To what extent do teaching and learning materials and learning assessments align with the intended curriculum? How do they support the learning process?
  • How do teaching and learning materials reflect pedagogical guidance expressed in curriculum documents? Do practices observed in the classroom correspond to what is expected by the curriculum and to known best practices in teaching basic numeracy skills?
  • How does the national curriculum compare with the global proficiency framework for mathematics at grade 3 and the last grade of primary?

As all four 2024 Spotlight country reports, the research in South Africa consisted of a literature review, mapping of policy documents, fieldwork and two stakeholder workshops – an initial and a validation workshop. For the fieldwork, a research team observed 23 mathematics classes in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces. Teachers, principals and school governing body members were interviewed to better understand the degree to which the intended curriculum is enacted in classrooms and the challenges teachers and administrators face in implementing South Africa’s curriculum.

There is political resolve to improve children’s learning

“The National Development Plan in South Africa calls for strong partnerships to improve learner outcomes by 2030, of which the Spotlight Report is one. Our singular aim is to ensure that no child is left behind in learning, recognising the critical importance of access to quality early learning programmes in the early ages of a child’s life.  Our fruitful collaboration with the GEM Report, ADEA and the African Union has  resulted in key policy solutions to remedy the challenges we face in delivering equitable, quality education for all learners, which we stand committed to pursue”.

Angie Motshekga Minister of Basic Education of South Africa

Foundational numeracy and literacy have been strong DBE priorities. This is reflected in the fact that education has been the largest budget item in the national budget for many years and remains so today. Demonstration of the political commitment to improving foundational learning is seen in the introduction of school nutrition programmes, school transport, the integrated early childhood development Policy, the language of instruction policy, high-quality support materials for learners and teachers, and early grade reading assessments.

These investments have ensured that there is universal primary completion. However, many challenges remain. In mathematics, as part of the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, South Africa was one of the three countries with the lowest achievement levels, even though it has made a lot of progress, making a fourfold increase for mathematics from 11% to 41% over 20 years. In reading, as part of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, an estimated 81% of grade 5 learners could not read with comprehension in 2021, up from 78% in 2016. To some extent, this fall was anticipated as a result of COVID-19, but the low level also demonstrates wider challenges.

Promising practices demonstrate the determination to improve the current learning outcomes

The Teaching Mathematics for Understanding programme has been piloted in 40 schools over the past five years and demonstrates a commitment to improve numeracy skills in learner-centred environments through the use of manipulatives. Lesson plans are provided for teachers to ensure that all learners understand each mathematics concept.

he Mental Starters Assessment Project introduces six focused mathematics lesson units for Grade 3 students, targeting skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, place value, fractions, and geometry. The aim of the project is to move students beyond inefficient counting methods like finger counting and tally marks, fostering a strong number sense.

Another good practice at the DBE, which is important to share with the rest of the continent, is the commitment to evaluate all early learning initiatives, in reading and mathematics, but also in other areas of education policy, and base their rollout on evidence that they have been effective.

To what extent does the national vision trickle down to key education documents?

As with each of the Spotlight second cycle outputs, the research in South Africa included a review of the national curriculum, learner workbooks, teacher guides and assessments in grades 3 and 6. Alignment across these pedagogical inputs can help learners effectively master these skills. The research found some misalignment between CAPS, the intended national curriculum, and the content of learner textbooks and national assessments, as a result of a multiyear curriculum recovery approach to address the negative impact of COVID-19, in grade 3 and, to a lesser extent, to grade 6. Overall, there is strong alignment between the national curriculum and the global proficiency framework for mathematics.

The report carries the following recommendations:

  1. Continue to support the vision of foundational literacy and numeracy.
  2. Consider the continued provision of concrete manipulatives for early grade mathematics classes with additional teacher training on how to use, sustain and maintain manipulatives and materials (i.e. mathematics kits and games).
  3. Time the delivery of instructional materials to schools so that they reach schools before term begins.
  4. Strengthen the accessibility of materials in all official languages across all years of primary school education and ensure awareness of the open-source Teaching Mathematics for Understanding
  5. Plan targeted teacher support and ongoing professional development to enhance teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills.
  6. Utilize learner responses in learning assessments better to improve teaching practices
  7. Continue improving infrastructure to accommodate increases in learner enrolment.



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