Nicholas Spaull

German statistician Andreas Schleicher said: “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion.” It’s a quote by which Nic Spaull lives his professional life. The 26-year-old is a member of the Research on Socioeconomic Policy team at Stellenbosch University, which analyses the data that inform South Africa’s education policies. Spaull says there aren’t enough people in the country who can interrogate problems in empirically rigorous ways, which means that all too often opinions or small local studies make policy. He hopes to change this. He is adamant that offering high-quality education to every child, not only the rich, is the key to a fairer South African society. It’s not surprising, then, to find that his family put books, education and learning rather than TV on a pedestal. In addition to lecturing to international students at Stellenbosch University on economic development in Africa, he is studying towards his doctorate in Economics with a focus on primary education. His master’s thesis on equity and efficiency in South African primary schools showed that far too many South African pupils are functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate (do not have reading, writing and arithmetic skills beyond the basic level needed to manage daily living and working tasks). His work not only highlighted how flawed and unequal our education system is, it also resonated in international circles when a version was published this year in the prestigious International Journal of Educational Development. When Spaull visits schools that are so neglected they don’t even have toilets, and when he is repeatedly confronted with shocking statistics about underperformance he doesn’t despair, he gets angry. It’s what motivates him to continue his work as a lecturer, academic and researcher-at-large because, if you don’t truly understand the data about low and unequal performance, Spaull says, you can’t fix the problem. — Victoria John