Counting the cost of lost school visits in South Africa

A year ago, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we predicted that school closings in South Africa would lead to learning losses. Loss of contact learning time would lead to lower educational outcomes, and losses would be higher in fee-free schools (looking after children from low-income families) than in paid schools.

Now we can update how much contact teaching time was lost in 2020 and make an “informed speculation” about the amount of learning loss based on changes in test scores between 2019-2020.

Worldwide, literature on the impact of the pandemic on education highlights learning losses and declining performance as a result of school closings, the widening of existing educational gaps, and the loss of learning gains over time.

In South Africa, the tough lockdown in March 2020 resulted in school closings and expectations that teaching and learning would continue from home. Schools and resource households were better able to maintain learning by going online.

In general, student households in fee-free schools did not have these resources. Many children did not have a quiet workplace, desk, computer, internet connection, or parents who had the time or ability to oversee their learning.

The schools closed on March 14, 2020 and returned in stages from June 8, 2020. The first 46 days of the school year, before the shutdown, can be classified as normal school operations. Grade 12 students (last year of secondary school) and 7th grade (last year of elementary school) did not return to school after 28 and 33 days, respectively. Grades 5 and 8 were the last to return after being out of school for 81 days.

According to the social distancing protocols, learners attended the school on a rotation basis, some on alternating days.

Education economist Martin Gustafsson estimates that the majority of learners could have lost almost 60% of their contact school days – or 65% for children in the lower socio-economic groups.

For completion in 2020, the curriculum had to be downsized and reorganized. In January 2021, 40% of school principals said they had not completed most of the shortened curriculum for most subjects.


I am the co-author of a comparative study of the short-term effects of COVID-19 on education – a book chapter discussing the effects on the education system and individual schools. The aim was to investigate the effects of school closings on the loss of learning time and educational outcomes.

Loss of contact learning time can be quantified, but it is more difficult to assess the impact of school closings on learning outcomes such as school leaks. B. Performance values ​​to quantify. Many countries have used predictions extrapolated from other studies.

In Belgium, however, researchers were able to calculate the impact of school closings on math scores for 6th grade students using six years (2015 to 2020) of standardized test scores. They found that the mean of math schools in the 2020 cohort was down 0.19-0.25 of a standard deviation compared to the averages for the previous five years. The standard deviation, a statistical value, provides information about the spread of the test results around the mean.

Since we did not have similar data, we asked the question: If the test 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in October 2020 to 9th grade students had taken the test in September 2019, so we based on the results of the Belgian study could speculate how our students would have done in a “2020” test.

The Belgian study provides us with reliable results on the effects of school closings on standardized test results. We applied the Belgian results to the data from the South African Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019 to extrapolate South African learning losses. These results provided us with a scenario of minimal learning loss in South Africa for 2020.

From the Belgian results we extrapolate a learning loss of 0.25 standard deviation in fee-free schools, 0.19 standard deviation in paid schools and 2.1 standard deviation nationally. Applying these values ​​to the 2019 South African data, the table below shows the South African performance estimates for the 2020 equivalent of the study.

Predicted trends in the results of the 2020 international math and science study.

If the 2020 grade had answered the 2019 performance test, the average math grades in 2020 would drop from 389 to 373 points (learning loss of 4.1%). The decline in the fee-based schools would be from 440 to 425 points (3.4%) and in the fee-free schools from 361 to 346 points (4.2%).

Applying the Belgian methodology to the South African data shows that the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2020 would have fallen back to 2015 levels, when the average national paid and toll-free scores were 372 points, 430 points and 342 points, respectively .

Move backwards

Another way of describing the learning loss is the math proficiency levels. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019, 41% of 9th grade students showed they had acquired basic math skills. In the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2020” this would drop to 34% – the same value as in 2015.

South Africa started the post-apartheid democratic era in 1994 with very low and unequal achievement values ​​and slowly improved educational outcomes to the low values ​​of 2019. The sad and uncomfortable truth is that the country will likely end 2020 with lower performance scores than 2019. The performance gains achieved since 1994 will return to the 2015 performance level – a loss of five years of learning. The effects of the pandemic will increase existing educational inequalities created by apartheid policies and contemporary shortcomings.

It is not known how many days the schools will be closed in 2021. We also do not know the quality of engagement when the learner is in school and how individual learning recovery takes place.

Unless the learning losses recover quickly, we assume that fewer learners will leave school with the skills and knowledge to pursue further learning opportunities or find a suitable place in the labor market. COVID-19 will have a long-term impact on education and society in general.

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