Why data matters in the South Africa education system

In this blog series, we will discuss the importance of the use of data in South Africa’s education system – why it matters to parents, learners, and educators, and how providing educators with the information they need can help learners do well. Click here to read all the blogs in this series.

There’s little doubt that genuine and sustainable improvements in quality of education can be gained through correct use of educational data. In 2017, the South African department of education achieved an incredible milestone – within five weeks, nearly 20,000 schools had submitted detailed performance data for 9.7 million of the estimated 13 million learners in the country.  This data is available in real-time to education officials through the Data Driven Districts (DDD) Dashboard, where, through strictly safe-guarded access management processes, they can view attendance, promotion, report marks, and school-based assessment data for their area of responsibility, whether national, provincial, district, school or learner. The intent of the dashboard is to accelerate the achievement of improvement goals across the school systems in the country, which, in turn, helps accelerate student learning.

How was this was made possible

South Africa spends over six percent of its GDP on education, however, the return on investment is poor as evidenced by South Africa’s second-last ranking in math performance in various studies, including the 2015 TIMSS study. Through its work in Data-Driven Education in the United States, the foundation understands the importance of quality data to address learning gaps. With better data, educators can more effectively target improvement outcomes, which in a resource-constrained system such as South Africa is even more critical.

After learning these insights, the foundation and the Department of Basic Education (DBE), South Africa, entered into a partnership in 2012 to better understand the opportunities and challenges to use data to drive improved educational outcomes.  Just five years later, few would have predicted this partnership would be a key enabler to the country, solving one of the toughest Educational Management Information System (EMIS) challenges: securely gathering timely, standardized and quality data in a system with very real infrastructure and connectivity constraints.

The first milestone of the DBE and the foundation’s partnership was the diagnostic study that resulted in the Success by Numbers report in 2012-13.  This research confirmed that data exists but is often of poor quality, and it flows upwards to policy-makers and planners, but not down to the officials best placed to design interventions.  As a result, schools face a crushing burden of duplicate data requests from well-intentioned, district, circuit, subject and curriculum advisors.  In fact, district-level data gaps were the most pronounced even though the districts offer the greatest potential to drive pragmatic change at scale.

The DDD dashboard pilot in 2013 was a direct response to this study and aimed to put quality data securely into the hands of district and circuit officials.  The early pilot collected data from SA-SAMS, a school information system provided free of charge by the DBE.  SA-SAMs is built on an old technology platform, with poor data validation and no connectivity.  In the early pilot stage, many weeks and kilometers were required to collect CDs and flash drives for just 50 school databases.  When the data was eventually processed, most of it was incomplete and essentially useless.   The aim of supporting data-driven decisions could not be realized until more efficient, secure ways to gather credible data were found.

The program had to step back before moving forward and understand the reasons for poor quality data.  Resources were re-directed to understanding existing data management processes and the user needs.  Fast-forward to 2014, these insights led to a software tool which integrates with the SA-SAMs system and guides the user to improve quality at source.  Over the next few years, iterations and improvements on the toolset was one of the innovations that has contributed significantly to the success of today.

What’s next?

The DDD program approach has shown that when working in complex systems, no one solution leads to large-scale impact.  Solving one problem often leads to the unearthing of another.  A deep understanding of the system, its people and their needs is critical to building sustainable and lasting solutions.

Today, South African education officials have more quality data available to them than ever before and a growing number are starting to use the data regularly and effectively.  A district official in Mpumalanga Provinces said, “I have found that the dashboard provides us with valuable information that we never had before when we were visiting schools.  Now we visit schools according to their performance and DDD provides that performance analysis.  This helps us target the schools better and understand their challenges.”

For every frequent DDD dashboard user, or ‘DDD Champion’ as they are called, many more struggle to integrate data into their ways of working and to derive actionable insights from it.  Further embedding data-driven decision making into the education landscape will require continued understanding of user needs and the context in which they operate, and we will continue to work towards it.

An anonymized version of the dashboard can be viewed here. The next few blogs will explore how users are finding value in the data and impacting learning outcomes at scale.