By Jonathan Molver, Education Partnerships Group
In 2018, prior to the pandemic, 98% of school-aged children were attending some form of education in South Africa. There had also been gradual gains in quality. Reading scores in primary school improved by roughly 0.05 standard deviations per year between 2011 and 2016, the third-fastest rate of the 43 countries that took part in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). But despite this progress, South Africa is far behind most of the world in terms of learning outcomes. Its children still cannot read, they cannot write, and they cannot do basic arithmetic.
Beneath these symptoms of a struggling education sector lies a labyrinth of complex and interrelated root causes. South Africa’s democratic governance model empowers communities to input on key policies like admissions, language, fees and behaviour, with parents required to be represented on School Governing Boards, for example. But, due to the deficit created by Apartheid, most communities lack the technical capacity to govern well.
Finance adds to governance challenges – departments are severely resource-constrained and lack the capacity to adequately support and challenge all schools within their remit. School governing bodies are responsible for selecting school leaders from a shrinking teacher and leadership population due to imminent retirements. These principals are often accomplished teachers but lack the training and qualifications to lead what in effect is a small and highly complex business, and to provide teachers with the training and development they need. Shrinking budgets, and national collective bargaining agreements on wage increases that exceed inflation, have severely limited the size of the teacher workforce and driven up pupil/teacher ratios to unmanageable levels. Furthermore, thanks once again to the Apartheid legacy, teacher content knowledge is low. A 2008 study found that teachers averaged 67% for Grade 6 maths tests, and 55% for Grade 6 language tests.
The reality with all of these challenges is that socio-economically disadvantaged communities are often hit hardest. In 2016, the Western Cape Education Department, under the leadership of Minister Debbie Schafer and with support from the Education Partnerships Group, sought to address the issues of quality arising from poor governance, leadership and teaching in these communities with the introduction of Collaboration Schools, a partnership between the Department and non-profit operators, designed to increase funding, governance and management capacity to no-fee government schools, which will remain non-selective.
This model has been piloted for five years and now spans 14 schools and 7 operating partners. Collaboration Schools introduce support from ‘school operating partners’, which are non-profit education organisations committed to improve the quality of teaching and overall learning outcomes for children. The pilot was subject to internal reviews, as well as an external evaluation. The latter has yet to be published, but the internal review has highlighted lessons to be learned in terms of what has worked, and what hasn’t.
A number of schools have used their increased flexibility to adopt proven leadership and teacher training methods new to the South African context, including frequent in-person coaching and more rigorous school improvement processes and dashboards. This data driven approach has yielded impressive outcomes, with schools boasting above national average final year results and some of the highest bachelor pass rates among non-fee paying schools in the country. Infrastructure, operations and general organisational health have improved across a number of these schools as well, largely due to the increased governance and management capacity, but also due to the effective mobilization and utilization of philanthropic funding in education. The importance of this cannot be understated, especially in light of the fiscal constraints South African education faces.
Before Collaboration Schools can be scaled up responsibly, the Western Cape Education Department will need to develop the internal capacity, systems, processes, and controls required to choose who partners with their schools, and effectively monitor how good a job they are doing. At the same time, they will need to balance accountability and regulation with sufficient flexibility in the model to allow operators to continue driving innovation and improvement. The Department has recently established a unit for this purpose.
The governance model, in which school operating partners advise school management and sit on the School Governing Board, while helpful in terms of increased capacity, has been controversial, and is currently subject to a legal challenge from the unions. It will require careful review: the dynamic of shared governance in schools/communities where there is not always alignment on priorities, or shared accountability for outcomes, has proven difficult. This has specifically been the case in financial and human resource matters, including hiring and managing underperformance. Determining the roles and responsibilities of parent and operator members of Collaboration Schools’ governing bodies is critical. In some cases, conflict or disagreement at a governance level has led to the breakdown of partnerships entirely, with children ultimately losing out.
Financial sustainability needs to be addressed. Collaboration Schools have benefited from an extraordinarily committed consortium of funders, but ultimately sustainable partnership in a no-fee context requires public investment. We should consider moving towards a more financially flexible model that enables innovation and ultimately sustainability, whilst held in check by rigorous accountability.
The Western Cape Education Department has been bold, inspiring and innovative in adopting a controversial and challenging model. They continue to reflect on the challenges and working to find solutions to ensure the long-term scalability and sustainability of a model that promises to radically improve outcomes and transform the life chances of children from some of South Africa’s most disadvantaged communities. The pilot has shown promise and demonstrated that there is a need in South Africa, at the very least, to provide space within the public sector to test, pilot and innovate – so that we are able to find solutions to some of the most intractable challenges. The Education Partnerships Group will continue to support the new provincial minister of education, the Western Cape Education Department and local funders to explore how to scale this model sustainably to reach more communities with better education services.