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What do you mean by ‘good’? The search for exceptional primary schools in South Africa’s no-fee school system


  • Gabrielle Wills

    () (Research on Socio-Economic Policy, Department of Economics, Stellenbosch University)


This paper describes a rigorous data collection process to find and verify the quality of what could potentially be high-functioning or high-performing schools accessible to the poor in three of South Africa’s nine provinces. A potential sample of outlier schools is selected using system-wide Universal Annual National Assessment data corroborated against school recommendations collected from a variety of system actors expected to be informed about school quality. Unfortunately, literacy testing in 31 purposively selected schools yields no example of high-performing, no-fee schools. However, we identify outlier or resilient students even in under-performing schools. Furthermore, within the no-fee school system there exists a continuum of functionality. Schools exist that while far from reaching good (or even adequate) median levels of English literacy, exhibit relatively higher literacy levels than other sample schools after controlling for student background differences. The presence of these relatively better performing sample schools (and performance variation more generally in the no-fee system) suggests that there is a middle-ground, a rightward movement away from dysfunction that can be reached. However, it is not clear that all system actors are able to detect variations in school quality. Our sample of respondents recommending ’good’ schools are only able to identify slightly better performing no-fee schools. For certain groups, specifically education district officials, enrolment growth appears to be a better indicator of their perceptions of ‘good’ than measures of student performance.

Suggested Citation

  • Gabrielle Wills, 2017. "What do you mean by ‘good’? The search for exceptional primary schools in South Africa’s no-fee school system," Working Papers 16/2017, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:sza:wpaper:wpapers292

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Mark Schneider & Gregory Elacqua & Jack Buckley, 2006. "School choice in Chile: Is it class or the classroom?," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 25(3), pages 577-601.
    2. Andrea Lépine, 2015. "School Reputation and School Choice in Brazil: a Regression Discontinuity Design," Working Papers, Department of Economics 2015_38, University of São Paulo (FEA-USP).
    3. Robert E. Klitgaard & George R. Hall, 1975. "Are There Unusually Effective Schools?," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 10(1), pages 90-106.
    4. Peter Boone & Ila Fazzio & Kameshwari Jandhyala & Chitra Jayanty & Gangadhar Jayanty & Simon Johnson & Vimala Ramachandran & Filipa Silva & Zhaoguo Zhan, 2014. "The Surprisingly Dire Situation of Children's Education in Rural West Africa: Results from the CREO Study in Guinea-Bissau (Comprehensive Review of Education Outcomes)," NBER Chapters,in: African Successes, Volume II: Human Capital, pages 255-280 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Martin Gustafsson, 2016. "Teacher supply and the quality of schooling in South Africa. Patterns over space and time," Working Papers 03/2016, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics.
    6. Servaas van der Berg, 2015. "What the Annual National Assessments can tell us about learning deficits over the education system and the school career year," Working Papers 18/2015, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics.
    7. Hunter, Mark, 2015. "Schooling choice in South Africa: The limits of qualifications and the politics of race, class and symbolic power," International Journal of Educational Development, Elsevier, vol. 43(C), pages 41-50.
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    More about this item


    Exceptional schools; literacy; no-fee schools; school quality; South Africa;

    JEL classification:

    • I20 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - General
    • I21 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Analysis of Education

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