Impact schools & government action: global lessons for South African education

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world  — Nelson Mandela

At no time in South Africa’s history has Mandela’s statement been more relevant than in the current climate.

Prominent South Africans, including Professor Jonathan Jansen and Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, have rightly described the South African education system in no uncertain terms as in crisis. The most recent Annual National Assessment – which garnered criticism as inflated — found that grade nine pupils scored an average of only 13 percent in maths, with only 2.3 percent scoring 50 percent or higher. At the tertiary level, a recent census likewise indicated a decline in maths and science proficiency, with only 2 percent of men and 1.8 percent of women earning qualifying grades.

A new South African education system: local action; global precedent

Tired of waiting for a broken system to heal itself, South Africans in townships and communities around the nation are actively seeking alternative high-quality models of education. High-performing schools like the LEAP Science and Maths Schools, the Inanda Seminary and the Western Cape’s Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT) all fit this model.

The phenomenon of alternative models of education is, of course, not unique in the world. Charter schools in the United States, which account for 5 percent of all American public schools and a staggering 41 percent in Washington D.C., are perhaps the best known alternative model. Similar movements have also sprung up in developing countries. Concession schools in Columbia and the Fe y Alegría Movement in Latin America are just two examples of alternative models of providing high quality education to impoverished learners. The Fe y Alegría’s primary mission is to provide quality education to the poor, to ensure that students complete at least the basic cycle of schooling, and to establish schools that operate on behalf of community development. The model, which typically employs a combination of government and charitable funding, began in Venezuela in 1955 and has since spread to 14 other countries.

Seeds of change in South African education

To move through the current crisis in education, South Africa must adapt, adopt and scale workable models. The South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition exists for this exact purpose.  This group of about 16 schools has committed to work together to prove that real transformation in education is possible. Schools like those in the coalition are starting to view themselves as a distinct model and have begun to refer to themselves as impact schools, and have begun to articulate a handful of characteristics that distinguish them from other schools. Impact schools:

  • Provide disadvantaged learners with high-quality educations.
  • Are dedicated to ensuring each disadvantaged learner’s ongoing academic growth.
  • Work harder, often employing extended day/extended year format of instruction, in order to change the trajectory of their disadvantaged learners’ lives.
  • Prepare disadvantaged learners for higher education.
  • Are affordable, combining public and charitable resources to afford low-income families the opportunity to enroll students.

Promising as these developments are however, scale will only be possible if the National Department of Education throws its weight behind the movement. The department must look to the work being done both abroad and at home to develop a model of excellence that it can call its own.

Domestic inspiration

Given the scale of the country’s education deficit, we must find and scale innovative and transformational models that bring excellence into the public schooling system. Can a transformative effort to improve the quality of education succeed? We believe the answer is yes.

By increasing government support for schools that deliver excellent outcomes for disadvantaged learners, the government can expand on what already works. Moreover, South African history has shown that the nation is capable of sweeping reforms.

In the not so distant past, South Africa has achieved stunning breakthroughs. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC,) is one example.  Since 1998, TAC has held government accountable for health care service delivery; campaigned against official AIDS denialism; challenged the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies to make treatment more affordable and cultivated community leadership on HIV and AIDS. For these efforts the TAC has received world-wide acclaim and numerous international accolades, including a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. On 30 August 2006 the New York Times named TAC, “the world’s most effective AIDS group.” The Truth and Reconciliation commission (TRC) is another. Set up in 1995 by the Government of National Unity to address the injustices and crimes of apartheid, the TRC has been hailed as one of the most successful examples of reconciliation in the world.

The current crisis in education leaves the department with little choice.  As Jonathan Jansen recently said, “If we do not fix the education crisis now, this democracy will implode in 10 years’ time… and we will be in serious trouble.” The time to pull together to address the challenge is now. The only question confronting government is, how soon are you willing to start?