Throughout the world, access to quality education for the poor remains elusive. In the US, the curse of the zip code is an open secret: For many children, zip code determines whether or not you have access to a decent education. In South Africa, where the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor is more extreme than in any other country in the world, the situation is even starker. In the South African education system, school success is almost wholly dependent on the postal code of your home address and what it suggests about the income of your parents.
In many countries, new models have developed in order to break this cycle of inevitability. It is time—indeed, past time—for South African educators, politicians, social development agencies and active citizens in South Africa to consciously and intentionally plan and create alternatives to our existing educational models.
- We need to create a layer of high-performing parallel alternative, impact schools that will open the gates to the flood of young people from the poorest communities who deserve access into spaces and places where quality education is guaranteed.
- We need to be clear that South Africa’s alternate models should not weaken or invalidate what is already working, but rather accelerate the pace of transformation and improvement.
- We need to acknowledge that copying existing models from other countries is not the answer, but that learning from them is vital. We must build on existing models, and make sure that we don’t take too long to learn what others have already learned before us.
- We must collaborate with those that have gone before and with one another to ensure that we do not repeat needless mistakes.
- We must not expect perfection. Instead, we must share and learn from any and all mistakes or missteps. Only by doing so can we ensure we discover and accelerate adoption of solutions and partial solutions.
- We must establish a framework for actively sharing solutions and ensuring that they become part of best practice across all schools. Work done by the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition (SAESC), under the auspices of BRIDGE, is an example of an effective collaborative platform.
The goal of South African education reform: Excellent instruction every day
What is the ultimate goal of this work? Certainly we seek to guarantee all children the quality of education that guarantees them access to university and that enables them to move through university to become more vibrant and vital citizens of our young democracy.
But there is another goal that’s both simpler and more profound. It’s that, as Jim Knight writes in his book, Unmistakable Impact, “[every] student receives excellent instruction every day in every class.” This goal that will not be achieved, he continues , “until educators are energized, thrilled and empowered by learning.”
There’s no silver bullet solution that will help us achieve that goal. No one—or two or three—simple solutions will work. But there are layers of opportunity to be mined. Many of them. One, two, three and more solutions operating in parallel may begin to address some of the problems so deeply rooted in our exclusionary education system.
Social entrepreneurs and existing schools are working hard to engage all stakeholders in active, solutions-oriented conversation. The extent to which we can, across sectors and political divisions, openly converse with and listen to one another is the extent to which we can hope for change. The nascent impact school movement has opened the conversation. Now it’s time for everyone interested in meaningful reform to join in.
John Gilmour is the founder and executive director of the LEAP Science and Maths School and its network of six schools. To learn more about how the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition and LEAP fit into the foundation’s strategic approach to change, read our founders’ letter.