Using the 5x4 Diagnostic to Better Understand Misalignments in the South African Governance System to Improve Early Grade Learning

The RISE Education Systems Diagnostic is a tool for identifying strategic priorities for education system reform. In the second blog in this series, we hear from the University of the Witwatersrand, one of the organisations that piloted the Diagnostic in 2022.   


Image of Brahm Fleisch

Brahm Fleisch

University of the Witwatersrand

Image of Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor

JET Education Services

Image of Anthony Essien

Anthony Essien

University of the Witwatersrand

Steven Robins

University of Stellenbosch

Image of Thabisile Nkambule

Thabisile Nkambule

University of the Witwatersrand

Michael Sachs

University of the Witwatersrand


Like many countries in the Global South, South Africa has a serious early grade learning crisis.  The most frequently cited indicator of this is the 2016 PIRLS results, which showed that 78 percent of schoolchildren do not reach the lowest proficiency level in reading.  Over the past ten years, researchers have been hard at work figuring out how to improve reading outcomes at scale.  Successful large-scale experimental trials have shown that an ‘education triple cocktail’ which consists of simple lesson plans, high quality teaching and learning resources, and a combination of just-in-time training and onsite coaching can really shift the needle of early grade reading.

The problem however is that politicians and policymakers are not moving on that information.  The big question is: why not?  The South African RISE team has taken up the challenge to find the answer using the 5x4 Diagnostic Tool.  With a combination of a thorough review of both government documents and published research, as well as in-person workshops and interviews, the team identified specific points of incoherence and misalignments.

Politics, planning and the public service

We found that although South Africa has a well-developed national government planning framework, there is a substantial gap between intended goals and operational plans, budgets, and implementation. At the provincial level, where much of the resources for education are spent, politicians and senior public servants need to address multiple pressures, including ensuring all children get access to schools, meeting stakeholder demands (unions), addressing minority interests and improving learning outcomes. As in many governance systems around the world, there is an inevitable tension between politicians’ short-term political demands (media coverage, and ‘flagship’ and ‘legacy’ projects), and senior public servants’ mandate to ensure the long-term stability of the education system.

Within the provincial education department, the South African RISE team identified the problem of ‘cadre deployment’ (i.e., politically connected individuals) and the weaknesses within the professional public service as a barrier to improvement.  These challenges are made that much more difficult to overcome in a period of declining per student expenditure and a national funding system that is largely formula driven.

Management and the challenges in the district office

To lead change to the ‘technical core,’ (effective teaching and learning in the classroom) requires capable professional capacity-building and accountability at the local level.  Our research on the South African education districts shows that they have five constraints:

  1. Insufficient capacity (too few posts);
  2. Lack of professional expertise/patronage in appointments;
  3. Multiple, and at times conflicting, bureaucratic deliverables;
  4. Accountable systems not to schools, but upward to the provincial bureaucracy, and
  5. Widespread deep distrust between teachers and district officials.

Even where districts are effectively managed, the absence of system-wide indicators of early grade reading and mathematics outcomes means that there is limited focus on the learning crisis. 

Voice and Choice but no influence on the instructional core

At the school level, parent ‘voice’ and ‘choice’ are potentially powerful forces in the South African education system. The school legislation grants parents considerable real authority around both finance and school policies. But in the absence of reliable information on learning outcomes (other than the high stakes exit Grade 12 exams), parent governors cannot play a constructive role in system improvements. 

With reference to ‘choice’, South Africa has an unintended legislative framework that permits considerable choice within the public school system. But as with the powers of parent governors, parents’ ability to use their capacity to choose their children’s school is limited by the absence of meaningful measurement of early grade learning.


The Wits RISE team analysis uncovered two critical priority areas that need to be addressed to ensure that South Africa become more effective at driving improved early grade learning system-wide.  The first relates to professional capacity.  There needs to be a more even balance between political leadership and leadership provided by senior public servants, particularly those with deep professional experience and expertise.  Deep professional expertise needs to be cultivated both in middle management at the provincial head office and at the district level.  The other key area is the need for widely accepted and accurate information/measurement of early grade learning. Test results of early grade learning need to be accurate at the school level, gathered at frequent intervals, and accessible to all stakeholders in the system.

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.