Improving Education in South Africa: Projects that Start Small, Scale Quickly and Drive Systemic Change

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 18 Aug 2011

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Picture credit: Henry Trotter
Picture credit: Henry Trotter

Take your pick in the national education blame game. Your choices would include teachers’ trade unions, an ideological curriculum unsuited to South Africa, the National Treasury because it does not adequately fund schools or even just the principal at your local school.

Of course, these stakeholders participate in the blame game too, each pointing the finger to the other. Truth is, there is evidence – often anecdotal – to backup the assertion that any one of these groups is to blame.  But whomever one chooses to blame, it often leads to paralysis. 

After all, all of the actors that commonly get blamed for the seismic policy failure in our education system are very powerful. Who would be able to dislodge delinquent teachers backed by their trade unions, challenge an eloquent group of policy advisors armed with a swathe of evidence, demand an increase in spending when education is the largest item on the national budget, or hold a principal accountable for the performance of his or her school?

Many South Africans do indeed feel a deep sense of powerlessness while attempting to get the best possible education for their children.

The solutions then proposed are often dramatic: The government should “take on” the unions, or we must return to the old curriculum, and other such extreme proposals.

Faced with such an assault on their integrity, teachers’ unions point to a record of involvement in educational reforms and several agreements on performance and discipline, educational advisors show us evidence of building a curriculum, government points out that spending between races has been equalised and that school governing bodies have a substantial say in evaluating the curriculum. 

Thus, sitting check-by-jowl with a deep sense of powerlessness in many communities, are ineffective attempts at structural change to improve educational performance. The outcome is that the affluent are able to find pockets of excellence (good schools), whilst poorer children attend what the Annual National Assessments call “struggling schools.”

However, an alternative approach with a focus on “small starts” can influence things differently and meaningfully. A good place to start would be the argument that trade unions implicitly condone teacher absenteeism and underperformance.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it is true that trade unions constitute the single biggest obstacle to educational performance in South Africa. Those making this argument offer the solution of a dramatic showdown between government and trade unions, akin to a Rambo like crushing of the trade unions. In other words, until there is this showdown – with the assumption that government will win – educational reform will amount to nothing. 

There is, however, a curious blind spot in this argument, which leads to the accusation that the unions are the scapegoat for a deep failure in government. Indeed there are administrative and political systems tasked with ensuring that teachers are in school and that they teach the full curriculum. This includes a minimum of six administrative layers starting from the Head of Department in the school and ending with the National Director-General of Education. Moreover, in terms of political accountability, there are several executive functions played by politicians, the legislature and school governing bodies.

Thus, a better question might be - why are these political and administrative structures so weak in instituting disciplinary procedures against errant teachers? 

This question could lead to actionable public policy recommendations. Importantly, it frames the public policy issue not only in terms of the public interest, but defines it within the domain of what government is capable of doing.

Imagine, for instance, that in the district with the highest teacher absentee rate, government institutes a simple monitoring system where parents receive a text message on the absentee rate in the school. This might sound like a soft response, but across the African continent, improving transparency in terms of the many aspects of schooling (e.g. finances, textbook delivery and so on) has proven to have good outcomes. It could mobilise parents, improve record keeping (which is important for disciplinary cases) and importantly, would identify and support diligent teachers.

Instituting such a system requires few resources - possibly just a list of parents’ telephone numbers, a nominal budget for texting parents and a trusted person to enter the data daily. It is a system that has the potential to work, and certainly improves prospects for calling on government to reach the goal of “teachers teaching.” It also tilts power relations in schools towards learners, parents and teachers that want to make the system work. 

Another issue requiring scrutiny is the relationship between class size and the performance of schools. In fact, for parents, this is a key factor in choosing more expensive schools because smaller class sizes are intuitively associated with better performance. The problem seems intractable. Poorer children will always have bigger classes and the middle classes will purchase social mobility for their children by spending more on education to get smaller class sizes.

However, research by Bhorat and Oosthuizen from the Development Policy Research Unit, challenges our intuition arguing that class size is not enough to explain the difference in school performance for schools under the 95th percentile. Whilst the authors caution against a “too direct interpretation” of their results, they do show that instead of class size, the knowledge infrastructure of a school matters more. Specifically, they identify having computers to support the work of teachers, as an important determinant of school success.

The data will never be perfect to rule out other explanatory variables with complete accuracy, but knowing that computers are important for teachers is an empowering finding for policy makers.  Doubly so, because the software is either cheap or free (open source) and several initiatives provide cost effective hardware tailored for schools. Potentially, the biggest gains will be in poorer areas with technology providing a way to equalise the educational system. 

These examples are criticised as small and inadequate given the sheer scale of the problem. Small they might be, but inadequate they are not.

The introduction of daily notifications of teacher attendance at schools empowers parents, rewards good teachers and creates records for disciplinary proceedings. Equally so, the provision of computers to teachers and more importantly students, supports independent teaching and learning and creates conditions for better management of schools. In both examples technology plays a role, though it is not the key argument.

To improve schooling, we need projects that take us beyond the blame game, which we all have unfortunately become a part of. Importantly, this approach could pool together a coalition of activists in trade unions, government departments and parents, who having collectively acknowledged the problem would identify projects that start small, scale quickly and drive systemic change.

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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