No Single Fix for South Africa's Education

François Bonnici

When looking at improving education in South Africa, the emphasis should be on innovative collaboration and partnerships, says Dr Francois Bonnici, Director of CEI's South Africa Hub, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business.

The dynamics around education in South Africa are not usually played out in court, yet recent events in the High Court have highlighted how bad things have become and shown us that, if we want education to improve in South Africa, we have to be prepared to get creative, collaborative – and sometimes, to get our hands dirty.

Daunting Infrastructure Challenges

Allow me to frame the context for my international colleagues. Earlier this year, the South African Department of Basic Education published a draft document delineating minimum norms and standards for public school infrastructure. The draft document prompted public scrutiny as well as a court order brought by NGO Equal Education, forcing the Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to provide more specific timeframes and details, particularly with regards to classroom sizes, the number of toilets required per school, water and electricity supplies, etc...

Motshekga will now have to prescribe final norms and standards by November 30. In response, education analyst Graeme Bloch said it would cost the department about R100 billion (about $9.5 Billion), if not more, to roll out the planned infrastructure. He questioned government’s ability to provide this for schools – even given the 17-year timeframe – and was quoted in the media as saying, “I think we need to be a little more creative, and enhance collaborations with (other sectors).”

He certainly has a point. Consider that the lion’s share of the 2013 national budget – R232.5 billion – is being spent on education, yet 93% of public schools have no libraries, almost 2,500 have no water supply, 46% still used pit latrines and 913 schools have no toilets at all. Most education experts agree that what is needed to right these wrongs is not more money or funding – but proper implementation and the support of projects and programs that are already in place at many disadvantaged schools.

The National Education Collaboration Trust: Moving Forward? 

That is why the launch of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) should be welcomed and supported. Established in July 2013, the NECT is envisioned as the implementing structure of the government’s Education Collaboration Framework (ECF). It is a partnership between government, business, labor and civil society to help put into action the National Development Plan (NDP) and the Education Sector Plan.

The trust targets 20 districts, with eight areas selected for priority intervention in five provinces, affecting 2 million children in 4,000 schools. Close to 60 schools have already been earmarked for special attention. Furthermore, the trust wants to stage interventions to raise human capacity, improve school management and district support and to establish results-oriented, mutual accountability between schools and communities.

At the trust’s launch, keynote speaker Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out that joint initiatives and partnerships between big business, government bodies and schools were crucial for success and reminded all that funding of the Joint Education Trust by 14 companies to the tune of R500 million was a benchmark for funding for the NECT. The trust will lean heavily on business for funding – a sector that already spends about R3 billion on education each year.

At the event, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe also underscored the need for widespread support from the broadest cross-section of stakeholders in civil society, labor and business to help improve the learning outcomes in schools. He said interventions by the private sector have demonstrated that even those children who attend poorly resourced schools can achieve good results if provided with adequate support.

The trust will not attempt to take over government’s role to manage and administer education, but will support government’s education reforms. Minister Motshekga said she believed the trust would succeed as it promoted system-wide intervention, focused on entire districts and not individual schools and was sustainable with the potential for long-term change.  

Collaboration and Innovation as the Key

So it seems that right from the start, the NECT is envisioned as an organization dependent on collaboration and partnership for its very survival. Partnering with the NECT could prove instrumental and beneficial, not only for the success of the NECT and the projects involved, but also for education at large.

It is a vision that the Center for Education Innovations - South Africa (CEI-SA), one of five global education hubs working to increase access to quality, affordable and equitable education for disadvantaged communities, wholly endorses.

Backed by Results for Development Institute (R4D) and with funding from the UK, CEI-SA is also working to enhance collaboration in education, and has already linked up hundreds of programs and projects like the Leap Science and Maths Schools and the Concept Literacy Project through its online platform. The aim is to showcase projects and innovations that are working and find ways to share and scale these successes by connecting them to the right people, organizations and funders.

Increasingly, these kinds of collaborative efforts and partnerships are being seen as the answer, not only by those in the education sector, but indeed by all organizations, companies and businesses plotting their courses in a world that is getting more complex. The key is innovation, which provides fresh solutions and new thinking around seemingly insurmountable obstacles – of which there are no shortages in South Africa's education. And the theory is that innovation always works better when there is more than one collaborator.

Instead of referring to “crises” and the education “problems”, we should be thinking about areas of opportunity – places where we can begin by making differences, one step at a time, as opposed to huge sweeping ideals that are bound to fail before they even manage take off. Instead of attempting to set as our goal the “fixing” of education, we should be looking at making partnerships, expanding our networks and sharing our visions; joining hands with others who can help strengthen our joint objectives in the interests of our children.

As Joy Olivier, founder of the highly innovative IkamvaYouth program on the CEI platform says, “Collaboration brings real learning and this can be frustrating and uncomfortable but that is where innovation happens. We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.”

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