EdQual Working Paper No. 23. Social and economic effects on primary pupils' reading achievement: findings from Southern and East Africa.


This study goes beyond the well-established link between pupils‟ socio-economic status (SES) and their achievement in school through investigating what material resources in the home and social influences give primary school students an advantage in learning to read. This is done through investigating the pupil characteristics that correlate with reading achievement in the second wave of data collected by the Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ) in 2000-2. The study focuses on six low income countries (Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) and four small middle income Southern African states (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland). The variables investigated are divided into four themes: pupil individual background (e.g. gender, school location, frequency of use of language of instruction outside of school); living conditions (e.g. access to water and electricity, number of meals eaten in a day); educational resources and support for learning in the home (e.g. access to books and interest of adults in education); and social influences (e.g. parental education, peer influence).

Some well-known associations between pupil background factors are confirmed, such as the advantage of speaking the language of instruction outside of school, progressing through primary school without repeating a year, being well-nourished and having parents with post-basic levels of education. With respect to these variables, the study offers a nuanced understanding of these dependencies and some of their interactions within the East and Southern African region. Interactions between gender and location revealed complex patterns of dependency. Individual repetition and the peer effect of having large numbers of repeaters in a school has a greater impact in the small Southern African states than the larger low income countries. Children who ate less than two meals a day were very strongly disadvantaged. Resources available to learners in the home that support reading and writing, such as books, artificial lighting and, in some countries, a table, were associated with higher achievement. However, other indicators of SES that are not useful in reading and writing, such as quality of building materials used in the home and access to water or electricity, were either insignificant or had only a very small effect in a limited number of countries.

The findings point to some clear implications for policy and research. Policies to improve girls‟ or boys‟ learning need to be informed by research and consultation at the national and sub-national levels. Efforts to ensure that children enter primary school at the correct age and then progress without repetition continue to be needed. Training teachers and designing curricula towards minimizing the use of repetition as a remedial strategy is particularly important in the Southern African small states. Targeted school meal programmes are likely to have a significant impact in tackling disadvantage, particularly in Botswana and Namibia. These, however, should not be implemented as a blanket policy at the national level, but rather targeted at schools where a substantial proportion of children eat less than two meals a day. Findings on resources in the home suggest that the cultural or social capital of the home is just as important as economic wealth in determining pupil performance, and that local awareness-raising campaigns and complementary education programmes targeted at communities where educational aspirations tend to be low is a way forward to be explored.


Bristol, UK: EdQual. ISBN: 978-1-906675-28-8, 26 pp.

EdQual Working Paper No. 23. Social and economic effects on primary pupils’ reading achievement: findings from Southern and East Africa.

Published 1 January 2010