Contract schools: International evidence points toward a new path forward for South African education

The refrain of devastating stats on South African education plays out year after year with few variations:

Contract schools: A new model for South African education

It’s time to change course. “The Missing Sector—Contract schools: International experience and South African Prospects,” a new report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE,) makes the case that the introduction of an alternate school model, based on a type of school system that has helped low-income, disadvantaged children in countries around the world, has the potential to improve South African education.

Funded by a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the report is based on an examination of contract-based school systems around the globe. The systems studied include charter schools in the United States, public-private models in Sweden and the UK, and developing world models such as Fe y Alegría and Concession schools. These school systems operate on the basis of partnerships between governments, which (either directly or indirectly through privately run authorizing agencies) set contract-based accountability goals and oversight mechanisms, and private sector management organizations, which are granted the freedom to introduce alternate approaches and school models in exchange for meeting those goals.

These systems are either free or low-cost. When certain key conditions are met, each shows evidence of providing underserved learners with high-quality academic experiences.

Two critical issues: Authorization, and the balance between autonomy and accountability

The CDE report makes a number of findings and recommendations based on global experiences. Based on our experience in the US, two recommendations in particular stand out:

1. “For contract schooling model to take off, ‘buy-in’ and support from government will be vital. Without the public sector on board, authorization … cannot be adequately undertaken.” The lesson learned from 20 years of charter school experience in the United States is that charter school authorizing and oversight matter more than almost anything else. The regulatory function is the first and foremost priority of building a strong sector.

Depending on the authorizing authority and the contracts in place, cities and districts have seen very different performance outcomes. Most important are the strength of the authorizers’ contractual mechanisms for a) measuring school performance, b) remediating with poor performers, and c) shuttering and replacing schools that do not meet minimum requirements on a clear timeline. In systems governed by strong authorizers, performance tends to be relatively strong. In systems governed by weak authorizers, the opposite is often true. By establishing a strong authorizing authority at the outset of this enterprise, South Africa has the potential to leapfrog US charter school performance.

2. Contract schools are based on the premise of autonomy; they must promote rather than stifle the initiatives of private school management entrepreneurs. The contract needs to underscore the level of autonomy for the school and the goals that will be achieved with this freedom.

Again, experience in the US has taught us that the role of the authorizing authority is to set standards and contractually stipulate “teeth” for enforcing those standards. School leaders should then be given the autonomy—in terms of hiring, firing, managing budgets and bringing in innovative instructional approaches—to meet those standards. Only through this autonomy (within the context of clear accountability) can schools hope to attract the sorts of leaders most capable of achieving substantial gains for students and communities.

What’s next for South African education?

South Africa deserves a school system that works. A range of international models point the path forward. In the coming months we hope to facilitate a conversation between the government, entrepreneurs and others to enable effective partnership between the government and the private sector, and to work across sectors to establish a pilot program or programs that combine the best of private and public strengths.

The goal? To learn to start the process of growing an evidenced-based but uniquely South African contract school sector.

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the possibility of building a strong contract schools sector in South Africa. Read more.

* The matric is the standardized test issued in the final year of South African secondary school.