Looking at what schools need – right now

François Bonnici

Instead of looking at how the South African education system would be in an ideal world, we need to look at practical, in-the-classroom solutions that will help children right now, says Dr. Francois Bonnici, Director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) and the Center for Education Innovations - South Africa.

The latest tsunami to hit the South African education system comes in the shape of shocking literacy statistics. According to the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu), after five years of school, 13% of 11-year-olds are illiterate. Another finding by the unit on a visit to classrooms this year was that only 5% of Grade 5 pupils were able to read at the required rate of 80 to 90 words per minute.

Needu CEO Nick Taylor called these figures a national catastrophe and said it was “quite clear that most of our teachers can’t teach reading”. But as Dr. Mark Poston, a teacher and education sector analyst, points out in a report to the Joffe Charitable Trust, the problem with education in South Africa is not just one thing - but many aspects coming together to create a perfect storm, he says, quoting Gill Connellan from Communiversity.

His report, entitled The Challenge of Educational Change in South Africa, comes to the conclusion that the combination of many factors, when put together, generates a catastrophic situation. Once again, the word catastrophe is mentioned in terms of South African education. It is easy to become demotivated in the face of so much negativity, especially when the official line from government and education department officials appears to be defiant and seems to contradict the views of those in the trenches.

Yet there are organizations that have been able to achieve great things in these difficult conditions. One of them is SAILI, a small Cape Town-based NGO that can be justifiably proud of its record of bringing 500 children to tertiary level education through their financial support. SAILI takes bright children from poor backgrounds, provides them with financial assistance and sends them to good schools, working on the premise that for some really bright kids, the only obstacle to a good education – is an empty wallet.

Director Sam Christie says his organization takes a practical view that may not always be popular – but which works. In 2011, students in their last year of the program passed mathematics with an average of 76%, against the national pass rate of 46.3%. They passed physics with an average 66% against the national pass rate of 50.8% and had a 100% final pass rate.

“The system is so weak that our model is to focus on individuals instead of trying to invest in an expensive vehicle that aims to impact many.” He says they have been looking at what can be done right now as opposed to taking a long-term view. “In South Africa, people too quickly look for an easy way out, some tool or program that will prove to be an easy fix. We keep hoping there is an easier, quicker, faster way.”

John Gilmour, education activist and founder of the LEAP Science and Maths Schools, agrees. “Just looking at the recent findings in terms of pupil literacy; it’s chaos out there.” LEAP Schools provide free education to students from high-need communities and have mathematics, physical science and English as mandatory subjects. School days are longer than in most public schools – but LEAP Schools also produce better results. LEAP has an average of 94% Grade 12 pass rate with 72% of graduates pursuing tertiary studies.

Both SAILI and LEAP are linked to the Center for Education Innovations - South Africa (CEI-SA), which is one of five global education hubs working to increase access to quality, affordable and equitable education for disadvantaged communities. Being showcased on the CEI platform as a part of this global network is crucial for organizations like LEAP and SAILI as it provides them with visibility in terms of international and national investors and stakeholders, but also links them to other similar organizations, increasing the opportunity for partnerships and collaboration.

While many education experts are jaded when it comes to the launch of yet another education initiative promising good results, CEI appears to have a better standing. “The collaborative space is really weak and there have been many instances of new platforms and partnerships that have launched with big fanfare but have resulted in only hot air,” says Christie.

“The association with the GSB brings a level of credibility which is required for all parties to take the process seriously and move beyond cosmetics and marketing that typically characterize collaborative spaces. CEI has begun on the right path and the question for those in the field will be whether they can stick to it.”
 
Gilmour adds, “the reality is that the CEI approach, and others like it, can only strengthen the connective and collaborative effort and this is the only way that change will take place in education. When we have an initiative like the CEI that helps interventions and innovation, telling stories of success and showcasing them, linking them to others and creating a platform, then we create traction and movement from which positive outcomes can flow.”

“I think the real challenge for education needs to be what is happening right now in the classroom. How teaching and learning are happening. The quality of teaching, this is what CEI needs to focus on. This what everybody needs to focus on.”

He says collaborative platforms like CEI as well as the recently formed National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) should be given a chance. This partnership between government, business, labor and civil society was created to help put into action the National Development Plan (NDP) and the Education Sector Plan.

So, no quick fixes; no easy answers. But with some educational organizations able to achieve good results with so remarkably little help and input, it is clear that any additional support and backing coming from collaborative platforms like CEI and NECT can only strengthen their hand and, ultimately, improve the state of education overall.

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