Third Education DialogueSA debates literacy and solutions for SA’s poorest performing schools

The National Education Collaboration Trust’s March dialogue provoked intense debate about the most productive interventions to transform education

The National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), in collaboration with the Wits School of Governance, convened the Education DialogueSA in March. The dialogues provide a platform for constructive engagement between stakeholders from all sectors contributing to the NECT – government, business, teacher unions, academia and civil society – to discuss proposals to improve the quality of basic education.

In its support of the NDP’s primary goal – ensuring that by 2030, 90% of South African learners will be passing Matric with language, mathematics and science marks above 50% – the NECT has adopted this inclusive “Codesa” approach, acknowledging that the task cannot be achieved by government alone: The dialogues specifically require a committed collaborative effort involving all stakeholders engaging in open, honest and even robust dialogue to create ideas, processes and actions with game-changing power.

After updates on follow-through from the June 2014 dialogue, the March dialogue featured two discussion groups. The event was chaired by Professor Ihron Rensburg, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, and Deputy Minister for Basic Education, Enver Surty. Delegates included the NECT CEO Godwin Khosa, FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana, Professor John Volmink, Mavuso Msimang, CEO of the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation, and independent educationist Graeme Bloch, amongst others.

The literacy and language dialogue

This stream was chaired by Deputy Minister Surty. He stressed the importance of literacy as the foundation of all learning and identified some of the obstacles to learning in poor environments. His examples were borne out by research presented by Dr Shelley O’Carroll of Wordworks. Literacy is dependent on a child’s language skills, and it is particularly important for the child’s development – and literacy – that each child be exposed to a wide range of stimuli around language and reading at an early age, such as talking, sharing stories and books, singing songs and rhymes, and pretend play. The high proportion of parents who are themselves semi-literate is a major challenge in providing these stimuli. Both presentations in this stream – the other was delivered by Ntombizanele Mahobe of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) – offered concrete examples of how effectively reading clubs at schools can improve literacy: through adult volunteers engaging in reading, storytelling and language play with learners, and by educating parents about behaviours that can promote literacy in the home.

It was also noted in these presentations that you don’t have to be qualified to teach some of these learning skills which is why both NGO’s encourage alternative methods of “reading” such as storytelling and creating songs, amongst others.

It was also apparent that South Africa has an extreme shortage of story books in African languages; this is problematic because basic literacy comes much more readily to children reading in their mother tongue.

In the discussion that followed, three points made repeatedly were:

·         that NGOs and communities, correctly harnessed, could be very helpful in advancing literacy programmes,

·         that properly stocked and resourced school libraries can be an invaluable community resource if coupled with reading clubs, and

·         that there is an urgent need to increase the production of children’s story books in African languages.

The private management of poorly performing public schools, and public funding levels in low and medium fee paying schools

Jane Hofmeyer of the Centre for Enterprise Development (CED), discussed the management and funding of schools for the poor and dispelled the myth that independent schools are over-running public schools. Only 6.1% of South African schools are independent, and 90% of those are run not-for-profit, as medium-fee (between R6 000 and R12 000 per year) and low-fee (less than R6 000 per year) schools catering to the poor and lower-middle class.

However, while public schools can be “no-fee” with government subsidising learners 100%, medium-fee schools receive only 40% of the subsidy and low-fee schools 60%. In effect, schools at which poor parents are prepared to pay fees to ensure their children a higher standard of education receive less support from government than schools at which no fees are paid at all. Most teachers in independent schools are earning less than teachers at the same level in the public sector, so the idea that independent schools “lure talent” away from state schools is also fallacious. The CED proposes that government pay the 100% subsidy to non-profit medium- and low-fee schools as well, which will enable them to deliver better results, and to be more effective in the drive to reform the public education system.

Dr David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust and representative of the Public Schools Operating Partnership Funder Interest (PSOP) group’s presentation, suggested a number of different viewpoints. The PSOP group is advocating a model which has worked in the UK and a number of African countries – placing our poorest-performing public schools under private management to rapidly improve their performance whilst still reporting into the government education department structures. Although South African schools are starkly divided – 80% perform poorly and 20% deliver good to excellent results, with very little middle ground – some of those schools in the “excellent” category are among the poorest and most under-resourced. The difference, research shows, is the quality of leadership and management, the level of teacher development and support, and the involvement of supportive governing bodies in these schools. The PSOP model would see 10 – 15 pilot schools continue to receive 100% funding from the state, but turn school management over to private-sector experts currently unavailable in the public system in a not for profit system. They would run the schools in collaboration with the governing bodies. They are confident that this approach could turn individual schools performances around in two years, and not only systematically reduce the percentage of poorly performing schools, but turn them into high performance schools. His view is that this should not be seen as a model for reform in mainstream government schools who would continue to improve as the Departmental and NECT inspired programmes take hold, but rather that this approach would potentially work for the poorest performing schools only.

In lively discussions sparked by this presentation, some delegates asserted that the “instructional core” is the problem at poorly performing schools, not management, while others objected that the proposal removes the state from any involvement in these schools “apart from funding”. Counter-arguments saw the proposal as the key to instilling leadership, governance, discipline, quality teaching and parental involvement in the schools that need them most.

Going forward

The NECT CEO Godwin Khosa summed up the day’s discussions by stressing the need to outline practical steps to take these proposals forward. We should acknowledge – and not confuse or underplay – the progress government has made in education since 1994. The NECT is not giving up on government schools, quite the opposite, it was clear that there is an improvement path for the vast majority of these schools, but that the stakeholders must maintain a sense of urgency. “But we also need to be exploratory, with the courage to introduce “disruptors” in areas that require a major shake-up. These two streams have both proposed significant reform in two critical areas and need further and rapid unpacking leading to conclusions and potentially an action plan” He said. “The NECT’s primary legitimacy and authority derives from the fact that it represents all stakeholders, and it should always capitalise on this strength in unity. This positions it perfectly to suggest and facilitate dialogue topics and process, and to develop the discussions into policy suggestions for consideration.

The next steps, Khosa concluded, should be threefold:

  • Delegates must engage in more listening, homework and  constructive debate, so that discussions around new models of schooling can transcend to policy,
  • The NECT will take actionable steps to facilitate the coordination of key players in terms of both the literacy and language dialogue, and the role of private sector management of public schools and the government subsidy of low and medium fee paying schools
  • Some interventions do not have to wait for changes in policy – there are proposals and interventions that stakeholders can implement within their own respective categories; for example, when companies who already participate in the NECT consider where they will spend the balance of their CSI budgets.

Given the number of successful interventions reported in the feedback on the 2014 dialogues that began the day, the NECT Education DialogueSA programme is proving itself as a mechanism through which different stakeholders, with vastly differing priorities and ideological positions, can hammer out issues and reach consensus on practical steps to improve education. It is hoped that the progress made will encourage all stakeholders to continue their commitment to this vital process.

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