South African contract schools: The promise of a new sector raises questions around oversight

Expanding access to quality public education, especially to poor communities, is entirely possible in South Africa—provided we are willing to make changes to our current school system. One promising avenue of change involves a new model of schooling called contract schools.

Around the world, this type of school has helped learners from poor, disadvantaged communities achieve better academic outcomes. As they’ve developed and evolved in 20 countries, contract schools have remained consistent on a handful of basics. Most fundamental is that they are publicly funded, but managed by NGOs, individuals and private organisations.

A recent report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) makes the case that such schools could be an important part of our remedy to the current education crisis, in which an estimated 60 to 80 percent of South African schools are effectively dysfunctional.1

The South African dilemma: Establishing the right authorizing authority

Can we design an effective South African contract school sector? In its broadest outline, the contract school model is simple:

  • An individual, NGO or private company applies to operate a school.
  • The authorizing authority and the applicant sign a contract, which 1) binds the private entity to run the school and the government to provide the funding, and 2) stipulates performance standards and quality outcomes.
  • The school operator obtains certain freedoms, especially around staffing and the length of the school day, in exchange for delivering on their contractual obligations to provide quality education.
  • If the operator fails to deliver in terms of performance and quality, the authorizing authority will (according to the terms of the contract and ideally after clear, enforceable plans to improve performance) shut them down.

For this model to work in South Africa, we must address a number of questions specific to our nation’s regulatory structure and operational capacities. One of the most urgent is around governance. The establishment and growth of this new sector requires a credible, trustworthy agency to authorize operators, to issue contracts and ensure that they’re enforceable, to monitor schools’ performance, and to take action if schools do not meet contractually-stipulated thresholds for quality.

The bottom line is that South African students deserve better schools. The idea of contract schools raises new possibilities in our collective struggle to improve our education system, but exploration and execution of such new ideas requires an open mind and political will.

A uniquely South African contract school system: Options for moving forward

As suggested by the CDE report, South Africa needs to establish a new “competent public authority” to play this regulatory and oversight role. CDE describes a number of examples that offer insight into what such an authority might look like, including the Philippines, which has established accreditation boards that sit outside the public sector. In this model, “each board has to meet certain standards, after which they are allowed to accredit the schools under their jurisdiction.”

The report also describes the charter school sector in the U.S., which has evolved over 20 years with a variety of governance and authorization models in place. This evolution demonstrates the fundamental importance of getting governance and authorization models right. School performance and the quality of learners’ outcomes are directly tied to both. In US cities where authorizers have clearly articulated quality measures and escalating consequences (up to and including closure) for failure, charter schools often outperform their traditional public counterparts. In cities where authorizers are weak and have poorly defined accountability measures, performance is much more varied.

The CDE report recommends that South Africa adopt a governance model that follows the example of the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) in Pakistan. PEF is an autonomous and independent institution funded by Punjabi provincial governments; a majority of its directors, including the chairman, are from the private sector.

School governing bodies: A viable starting place?

Some provisions in the South African Schools Act (SASA) allow for the formation of governance authorities analogous to those described above. The CDE report notes that Section 17 of the SASA allows for management and governance to be shared among more than one school. In other words, existing school governing bodies (SGB) could oversee more than one school.

The idea behind SGBs, which were designed to promote the provision of quality education at the school level, is sound. To date, however, SGBs have had little ability to change school performance; as a result,  the majority of low performing schools in low income areas have largely continued to be low performing while ex-Model C schools (which, under apartheid, were reserved for white pupils) generally continue to perform well .

Especially among parent-governors from poorer communities, SGBs of many schools lack the specialized technical, managerial and governance skills to oversee schools effectively. By developing significant skills, building capacity and enlisting specialists with technical skills, they could execute their responsibilities more effectively.

The CDE report also suggests that existing agencies in South Africa such as Umalusi, which sets and monitors qualification standards, or the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU), which serves to provide the Minister of Education with accurate, evidence-based analyses on the state of schools in South Africa, could serve as the basis for a Punjabi-style authorizing and accountability structure. We see another option as well: University-anchored centres of educational excellence, such as the Schools Development Unit at the University of Cape Town or the University of Johannesburg Institute for Childhood Education, could house authorizing teams. (Multiple states in the US have seen good results with university-based authorizators.)

The bottom line is that South African students deserve better schools. The idea of contract schools raises new possibilities in our collective struggle to improve our education system, but exploration and execution of such new ideas requires an open mind and political will. What do you think? Are you or your organisation amenable to exploring these possibilities? Tell us more…

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

1The report, “The Missing Sector- Contract Schools: International experience and South African prospects,” was written and published by CDE. The report is based on five background research reports written for CDE as well as two workshops with leading experts. It provides a high level analysis of the sector as it’s evolved globally, and makes series of recommendations for incubating such a sector in South Africa. The report was funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.