Why business, large and small, should be pledging funding to the NECT

What’s been dubbed ‘SA’s educational Codesa’ involves all stakeholders, each with their own particular contribution to offer in creating quality education for all – big business will be a major beneficiary. Government is matching private sector donations rand for rand, and contributions have tax and BBBEE advantages. There is a compelling argument for engagement.

It’s an uncomfortable but accepted fact: South Africa has to raise education standards significantly and across the board if we are to make progress against the social scourges of poverty and unemployment. Better basic education is the foundation that underpins both employable skills and the capacity for entrepreneurship. Today, almost all South African children have access to basic education – a vast improvement on the situation in 1994. However, the quality of that education often leaves a lot to be desired. From the implementation of mother-tongue primary education, to higher literacy and maths levels, to the improvement of matric pass rates there are serious challenges that need to be addressed, urgently. So it’s no surprise that the National Development Plan (NDP) makes education our number-one priority.

There is, regrettably, a perception in some business circles – certainly not all, but pockets exist within big business and SMEs alike – that while our education system might need a rapid overhaul, “it’s government’s problem.” Fortunately, there are many analytical business heads that have realised it isn’t. If the burden of social grants on the budget keeps growing, if labour and service-delivery unrest keep exacting an ever-increasing human and financial toll, it quickly becomes everyone’s problem. It’s this understanding that has brought government, business, academia, teachers’ unions, NGOs, schools and parents together in the National Education Collaboration Trust (the NECT). The result - a Codesa-like process involving all the stakeholders, it was formed in 2013 to achieve a significant and rapid rise in education standards.

The NECT has focused as a starting point on eight school districts, representing 18% of South Africa’s schools. Each district has a District Steering Committee (DSC) to implement the NECT goals at district level, and six of these districts have already begun interventions at their poorest-performing schools. Overall, the aim is to reduce the percentage of poorly performing districts  from 37% to less than 10%, and increase the percentage of medium-performing districts from 43% to 60%, within ten years. Traditional leadership and religious bodies – both powerful forces when it comes to mobilising grass-roots buy-in and offering governance capacity – are encouraged to participate in the DSCs and provide leadership in their implementation, and the NECT also aims to increase parental involvement in education, through school governing bodies.

The NECT is working closely with four Lead Agencies charged with a responsibility to support the district in designing the interventions and managing the work of NGOs that will be engaged to deliver improvement programmes. . The NECT aims to act as a catalyst – to co-ordinate the efforts of government, labour, business and civil society so that they will be most effective – and, of course, to see that the project is appropriately funded. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga confirmed, “the formal relationship we have with the NECT helps us [as government],  it helps us to do some of the work through NGOs.”

So what exactly is the private sector’s special area of expertise that it can contribute to the NECT? The two things that business is really good at: funding... and governance. As Godwin Khosa, CEO of the NECT, said at the second dialogue, “...here, business has a big role to play. South Africa is rated first in the world for corporate governance by the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. We need to take advantage of our strengths as a nation. The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants is currently involved in a programme to educate and mentor school governing bodies in Gauteng, with a vision ultimately of helping these schools pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” The NECT network of corporate mentors, and traditional and religious groups, he added, would help to counter corruption such as “the sale of teaching posts, [or] inflation of the prices of school feeding schemes.”

On the issue of funding, he referred to the government’s commitment to a 50-50 partnership with business. “Under the auspices of the NECT, government has pledged to match funds raised by the private sector ... We need to consolidate the funding power, the governance management skills and the energy of the private sector, hold government and the unions – who are both involved and committed to the NECT – to implementing the programmes, and to convince ordinary citizens to stand up and take responsibility through their governing bodies for their schools.”

Government has pledged an initial funding commitment of R300 million across the original eight districts, matching private donors rand for rand. It’s an impressive and inspiring arrangement, as private sector funding of the NECT will also qualify as Corporate Social Investment (CSI). As the new BEE codes require some commitment to CSI from SMEs as well as big business, Khosa is optimistic that funding will be forthcoming from large, medium and small businesses alike. And existing NGOs need not worry that the NECT is a threat to their current funding channels.  Government contributes half of the NECT budget, and the balance represents less than 5% of the donating big business CSI budgets. Quite the opposite  in fact, many NGOs will find that the NECT brings both extra budget and work to the table, and helps them to direct their efforts to where they are most needed.

The NECT is a golden opportunity for business to make a significant investment in its own future – a future of good governance, functional schools, educational excellence, a more skilled labour force and a broader and deeper consumer base. It’s about more than social responsibility; ultimately, it’s about creating a sustainable and growing economy and a self-sufficient and vibrant country.

 

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